event calender

Ohio University to Celebrate 50th Anniversary of
Brown v. Board of Education Decision on May 17

Video (13 min.)
"Brown v. Board and OU, 1954 - 2004: The Faces of Statistics" Baker Center main lobby - May 17 - 21
Alden Library 4th floor through the month of May

" Brown v Board & OU, Then and Now"
Alden Library 4th floor
May 17 through the summer

An Ohio University Steering Committee has been instituted to coordinate university and community events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This decision, handed down on May 17, 1954, declared de jure segregation to be unconstitutional.

"The sheer magnitude of this decision serves as one of the defining landmarks for this country in the twentieth century," says Ohio University President Dr. Robert Glidden. "The Brown decision had and continues to have fundamental importance to those of us committed to education justice and democracy. It is altogether fitting and proper for our institution to provide leadership to celebrate the great strides made since the Brown decision and to recognize the work that yet remains to achieve educational justice."

Earl Warren

" In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
Chief Justice Earl Warren


In February 1954, the Supreme Court heard final arguments in the landmark desegregation 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. This historic 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 the 1950s.

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 or naturalized 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.

In 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 Supreme Court reasoned that this act was beyond the scope of the 13th and 14th Amendments, as these amendments only concerned the actions of the government, not those of private citizens. With this ruling, the Supreme Court narrowed the field of legislation that could be supported by the Constitution and turned the tide against the civil rights movement.

By the late 1800s, segregation laws became almost universal in the South where previous legislation and amendments were, for all practical purposes, ignored. The races were separated in schools, in restaurants, in restrooms, on public transportation and even in voting and holding office.

In 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 state 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 was not violated. As a result, the "separate but equal" doctrine became the constitutional basis for segregation.

One dissenter on the court, Justice John Marshall Harlan, declared the Constitution "color blind" and accurately predicted that this decision would become as harmful as the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857.

In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was officially formed to champion the modern black civil rights movement. Although 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 the graduate 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.

While each case had its unique elements, all were brought on the behalf of elementary school children, and all involved black schools that were inferior to white schools. Rather than simply challenging the inferiority 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.

Thurgood MarshallThurgood 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 states' rights in matters relating to education. Realizing the significance of their decision and being divided among themselves, the Supreme Court took until June 1953 to decide they would rehear arguments for all five cases. The arguments were scheduled for the following term, at 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.

In September 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 Court 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.

Finally, on May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Warren read the unanimous opinion; school segregation by law was unconstitutional. Arguments were to be heard during the next term to determine just how the ruling would be imposed. 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.

However, minority groups and members of the civil rights movement were bolstered by the Brown decision even without specific directions for implementation. Proponents of judicial activism believed the Supreme Court had appropriately used its position to adapt the basis of the Constitution to address new problems in new times. The Warren Court stayed this course for the next 15 years, deciding cases that significantly affected not only race relations, but also the administration of criminal justice, the operation of the political process, and the separation of church and state.


This article, which originally appeared in the December 2003 Issue of Ohio Schools, is reprinted with the permission of the Ohio Education Association.

For the full text of the majority decision, visit

Ohio University - Brown v. Board of Education
Steering Committee

Bill Allen, University College
Joe Burke, Residence Life
Rosemary Butcher, College of Medicine
Glenn Doston, College of Education
Ann Fidler, Honors Tutorial College
C. Michael Gray, African-American Studies/African Studies
Pat Gyi, College of Medicine
Sandra Haggerty, School of Journalism
Jenny Hall-Jones, Residence Life
Margaret King, Human and Consumer Sciences
Carolyn Lewis, Telecommunications Center
Yegan Pillay, Institutional Equity
Bill Smith, Institutional Equity
Tara Stuckey, Student Trustee
Christine Taylor, VP for Administration Office
Katherine Ziff, Office of the University Ombudsman

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