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Brown v. Board of Education

the Supreme Court Decision that ruled school segregation was unconstitutional

In the early 1950's, Linda Brown had to walk one mile to a black elementary school, even though a white school was only seven blocks away. Her father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her in the white school, but was told that his daughter had to attend the black school, which, he was told, was as good as the white school. In 1951, the Topeka branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), headed by McKinley Burnett, filed suit on behalf of Brown and twelve other black families seeking an injunction forbidding the segregation of Topeka public schools.

Linda Brown Oliver Brown

The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas heard the case June 25-26, 1951. The NAACP argued that segregated schools were inherently unequal because they sent the message that black children were inferior to whites, while the Topeka Board of Education argued argued that, since segregation pervaded many aspects of life, segregated schools simply prepared black children for the realties they would face in their lives. The Board also argued that segregated schools were not inherently harmful, as many great African-Americans had overcome even greater obstacles to achieve the greatness for which they were known. The District Court agreed that segregated schools had a detrimental effect upon black children, but the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson allowed separate but equal school systems and the Supreme Court had not overturned that decision, and ruled in favor of the Board.

The Topeka NAACP filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on October 1, 1951, and the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case was combined with cases from South Carolina, Virginia, District of Columbia, and Delaware into the single case Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, who became the first black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, acted as the chief counsel for all plaintiffs, but he was assisted by a small army of black and white attorneys in the preparation and presentation of arguments.

The Supreme Court first heard arguments on December 9, 1952, but due to a combination of factors, including the death of one of the Justices, was unable to reach a decision. The case was argued again December 7-8, 1953, with the Court asking both sides to discuss "the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868."

Chief Justice Earl Warren read the Court's final decision on May 17, 1954: "...Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. ...We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment." The decision formally overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, but did not set a specific time frame for the desegregation of public schools, nor did it have any bearing on segregation in other public places.

Brown Foundation
The Oyez Project

McKinley Burnett
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

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This page was last updated on 09/24/2017.