Brown v. Board of Education and the Supreme Court’s Landmark Decision 70 years ago

Since the inception of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1789, few rulings by the highest Court in the land have significantly altered the educational and civil rights landscape of America more than the Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling (9 – 0) declared that separate educational facilities are inherently unconstitutional and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. In essence, the milestone decision ended the “separate but equal” doctrine the Supreme Court had ruled on in 1896 in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which upheld a law that allowed racially segregated public schools in America to operate as long as such learning institutions were deemed equal.

“The Supreme Court’s historic decision provided a legal basis for the desegregation of schools across the United States,” said retired Wayne County Probate Court Judge June Blackwell-Hatcher, a past president of The Association of Black Judges in Michigan. “It mandated that states had to integrate their schools. This ruling laid the groundwork for subsequent civil rights legislation and legal challenges to attempt to dismantle segregation in other areas of society.”

The landmark case ascended to national and international prominence when Rev. Oliver Brown, an African American pastor and parent in Topeka, Kansas, filed a class-action lawsuit in conjunction with 12 other local Black parents at the behest of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP. Brown’s position was that his oldest daughter, Linda Brown, had been denied admission to a local all-white elementary school simply because she was Black. Although the young girl lived only a few blocks from the school, she was forced, by law, to commute 24 blocks to a Black elementary school.

The case was filed in 1951 and went to the U.S. District Court in Kansas. The Court agreed that public school segregation had a “detrimental effect upon the colored children” and contributed to “a sense of inferiority” but upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, the segregated law of the land since 1896.

The NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund (LDF) petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case in 1954. While the case reached the High Court under the name of the plaintiff, Oliver Brown, it represented a consolidation of lawsuits by African Americans experiencing the same level of segregation and racism in public schools in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Led by LDF founder and first Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston, the former Dean of Howard University Law School and first general counsel of the NAACP, the two attorneys amassed a legal team to battle the Supreme Court. Interestingly, 13 years after the landmark case, Marshall became the first Black person to serve as a Supreme Court Justice.

Nevertheless, the Marshall-Houston-led team raised an array of legal issues with the Supreme Court, with the central argument that separate schools for Black children in America were far from equal to White schools. In addition, segregation violated the “equal protection clause” rooted in the 14th Amendment, meaning that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

On May 17, 1954, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and the eight other Justices agreed.   As expected, the High Court’s historic decision didn’t sit well with various populations of White people across America, especially in the South where wicked Jim Crow Laws of segregation had severely suppressed Black people since the 1870s – actually earlier. Diehard White segregationists vehemently objected to being forced to integrate public schools and other facilities, leading to protracted legal battles, political strife, and violence in many instances. Some southern state’s top elected officials were not above the fray as they sought to circumvent the federal Court’s ruling.

Classic examples of defiance included Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who, in September 1957, dispatched the state’s National Guard to block Black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed armed federal troops to escort a group of Black students – The Little Rock Nine – into Central High. In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace brazenly stood at the front doors of Foster Auditorium on the campus of the University of Alabama to stop two Black students – Vivian J. Malone and James A. Hood – from enrolling at the all-White institution. Wallace’s stance was unsuccessful.

Although there were many other attempts to disobey the Supreme Court’s ruling in various parts of the country, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Conversely, Brown v. Board of Education served as a catalyst for subsequent legal and social advancements by powering the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 through 1968. The ruling also provided a legal precedent and moral template for the passage of key federal legislation, inclusive of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other historic Black advancements leading to May 17, 2024.

“It has now been 70 years since the NAACP led and won the fight to integrate our schools. Today, we carry the torch by fighting for that history to remain in our nation’s classrooms,”  Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement. “The effort to establish equitable access to education continues to be an uphill battle for Black Americans as we witness modern-day attacks on educational rights, such as the erasure of Black history in schools and elimination of affirmative action in higher education. As we continue this fight, we cannot forget the shoulders on which we stand.”

Unfortunately, many school districts across America are still grappling with racial issues linked to educating Black students in the same equitable fashion as White pupils. Some civil rights advocates see the hands of time reverting to the racial attitudes, doctrines, and legislation of yesteryear.

“School segregation levels are not at pre-Brown levels, but they are high and have been rising steadily since the late 1980s,” said Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “In most large districts, school segregation has increased while residential segregation and racial economic inequality have declined, and our findings indicate that policy choices – not demographic changes – are driving the increase.”

With the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022, many think Brown v. Board of Education could be next.

“It’s a concern because you look at what happened with Roe v. Wade,” said Blackwell-Hatcher, an American University Law School alum. “Roe v. Wade was settled law, and Justices Kavanaugh, Coney Barrett, and Gorsuch changed it after saying in Senate Judiciary Committee  hearings that they would not overrule settled precedent. So, in this climate across America and with this Supreme Court, which to me is the worst in many decades because it’s so politicized, we are seeing some things that are concerning.”

According to Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, the Supreme Court striking down Brown v. Board of Education is possible. However, he believes it would not happen in the same blatant way Roe v. Wade was overturned. Tribe thinks the Supreme Court would most likely take a piecemeal approach to undermining Brown v. Board of Education.

“The decision,” said Tribe, “is likely to get whittled down, just as Brown v. Board of Education itself was to some lesser degree whittled down in a series of Supreme Court cases that followed the 1954 ruling in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.”

The NAACP’s top executive is up for the fight to keep and improve Brown v. Board of Education.

“The NAACP has long advocated for educational rights within the Black community,” said Johnson. “We use this momentous occasion (the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education) to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring access to equitable education and uplifting our continued fights across the nation.”








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