February 1954, the Supreme Court heard final arguments in the landmark
case of Brown v. Board of Education. The following May, the court
ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was
a violation of the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional.
decision marked the end of the "separate but equal" precedent
set by the Supreme Court nearly 60 years earlier and served as catalyst
for the expanding civil rights movement during the decade of
While the 13th
Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed slavery,
it was not until three years later, in 1868, that the 14th Amendment
guaranteed the rights of citizenship to all persons born
in the United States, including due process and equal protection
of the laws. These two amendments, as well as the 15th
Amendment eliminate the last remnants of slavery and to protect
the citizenship of black Americans.
1875, Congress also passed the first Civil Rights Act,
which held the “equality
of all men before the law” and called for fines and penalties
for anyone found denying patronage of public places, such as
theaters and inns, on the basis of race. However, a reactionary
reasoned that this act was beyond the scope of the 13th and
14th Amendments, as these amendments only concerned the actions
the government, not those of private citizens. With this ruling,
Supreme Court narrowed the field of legislation that could
be supported by the Constitution and turned the tide against
By the late 1800s,
segregation laws became almost universal in the South where
previous legislation and amendments were, for all practical purposes,
The races were separated in schools, in restaurants, in restrooms,
on public transportation and even in voting and holding office.
1896 the Supreme Court upheld the lower courts' decision in the case
of Plessy v.
Ferguson. Homer Plessey, a black man from Louisiana, challenged
the constitutionality of segregated railroad coaches, first in the
courts and then in the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court
upheld the lower courts, noting that since the separate cars provided
equal services, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment
violated. As a result, the "separate but equal" doctrine
became the constitutional basis for segregation.
dissenter on the court, Justice John Marshall Harlan, declared the
blind" and accurately predicted that this decision
would become as harmful as the infamous Dred Scott decision
In 1909 the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
was officially formed to champion the modern black civil rights
in its early years its primary goals were to eliminate
lynching and to obtain fair trials for blacks, by the 1930s, the
NAACP began focusing
on the complete integration of American society.
One of their
strategies was to force admission of blacks into universities at
level where establishing separate but equal facilities
would be difficult and expensive for the states. At the forefront
of this movement was
Thurgood Marshall, a NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund.
By the 1950s,
the NAACP was beginning to support challenges to segregation at the
elementary school level. Five separate
cases were filed in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, the District
of Columbia, and Delaware:
Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of
Education of Topeka, Shawnee County Kansas, et al.; Harry Briggs,
Jr., et al. v. R. W. Elliott, et al.;
Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County
School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al.; Spottswood
Thomas Bolling, et al. v. C.
Melvin Sharpe, et al.; Francis B.
Gebhart, et al. v. Ethel Louise Belton, et al.
each case had its unique elements, all were brought on the behalf
school children, and all involved black schools
that were inferior to white schools. Rather than simply challenging
of the separate schools,
each case claimed that the "separate
but equal" ruling violated the equal protection
clause of the 14th Amendment. The lower courts
ruled against the plaintiffs in
each case, noting the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling
of the United States Supreme Court as precedent.
In the case of Brown v. Board of Education,
the federal district court even cited the injurious
effects of segregation on black children, but
held that "separate but equal" was
still not a violation of the Constitution. It
was clear to those involved that the only effective
route to terminating segregation
in public schools was going to be through the
United States Supreme Court.
In 1952 the Supreme
Court agreed to hear all five cases collectively.
This grouping was significant because it represented school segregation
as a national
issue, not just a southern one.
Marshall, one of the lead attorneys for the
plaintiffs, and his fellow lawyers provided testimony from more than
30 social scientists affirming
the deleterious effects of segregation
on blacks and whites. The
lawyers for the school boards based their
defense primarily on precedent as well as on the importance of
in matters relating
to education. Realizing the significance
of their decision and being divided among themselves, the Supreme
took until June 1953
to decide they would rehear arguments for
all five cases. The arguments were scheduled for the following
which time the Court wanted
to hear both sides’ opinions of what
Congress had in mind regarding school segregation
when the 14th Amendment was originally passed.
1953, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, governor of California,
the new Supreme Court Chief Justice. In
his brief to the Warren court
that December, Thurgood Marshall described
the separate but equal
ruling as erroneous and called for an immediate reversal under the
14th Amendment. He argued that it allowed
the government to prohibit any state action based on race, including
segregation in public schools.
Over the next
few months, the new Chief Justice worked to bring the splintered
together. He knew that clear guidelines
and gradual implementation
were going to be important considerations, as the largest concern
remaining among the justices was the
racial unrest that would doubtless follow their ruling.
on May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Warren read the unanimous opinion;
segregation by law was unconstitutional.
Arguments were to be heard during the next term to determine just
how the ruling would
Just over one year later, on May 31,
1955, Warren read the Court's unanimous decision, now referred
to as Brown II, instructing the
states to begin desegregation plans "with all deliberate speed."
Despite two unanimous
decisions and careful, if not vague, wording, there was considerably
resistance to the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
In addition to the obvious disapproving segregationists were some
constitutional scholars who felt that the decision went against legal
tradition by relying heavily on data supplied by social scientists
rather the precedent of established law. Supporters of judicial restraint
believed the court had overstepped its constitutional powers by essentially
writing new law.