The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas stands as the most significant Supreme Court decision in the history of American education, as well as one of the most important statements on racial equality and the relationship between various levels of American government. A half century later, the impacts and implications of Brown are still emerging.
Prior to Brown, American education followed the edict of ‘‘separate but equal,’’ first established in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. According to the Court’s ruling, the denial of access to public railway accommodations did not violate the plaintiff ’s rights, as long as ‘‘separate but equal’’ accommodations were available. The Supreme Court subsequently affirmed the ‘‘separate but equal’’ doctrine for postsecondary education in Berea College v. Kentucky (1908). This ruling upheld the criminal conviction of officials of Berea (a private college) for allowing African American students to be educated with white students. Two decades later the Supreme Court extended the ‘‘separate but equal’’ doctrine to K 12 education in Gong Lum v. Rice (1927). This ruling permitted a Mississippi school to exclude a student of Chinese descent from a white school.
In the mid-1950s the practice of Jim Crow was firmly established in the Southern US. Under Jim Crow (a term believed to have originated in 1830s minstrel shows, in which whites performed racially demeaning impersonations of blacks), virtually all public spaces were rigidly and legally segregated across racial lines. The practice of Jim Crow was stringently enforced through both legal and extra legal means, no less in public schools than in transportation, hotel accommodations, eating and drinking establishments, and the voting booth.
In the decades prior to the Brown decision in 1954, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supported the filing of three claims involving issues of equality in higher education. Importantly, these Supreme Court decisions served as precedent for dismantling the system of ‘‘separate but equal’’ that shaped the American public school system. First, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) required that states either establish separate graduate schools for African Americans or integrate them into existing ones. Lloyd Gaines, an African American man, was refused admission to the Law School at the University of Missouri. Instead of admission, the state offered to pay Gaines’s tuition for law school in a neighboring state; this offer complied with Missouri state law. Gaines brought action on the grounds that the denial violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court agreed, claiming that the state’s system of legal education provided white students with a privilege denied to their African American counterparts.
Second, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) challenged the provision of ‘‘separate but equal’’ accommodations in higher education. McLaurin, an African American resident of Oklahoma, was admitted to the Graduate School of the University of Oklahoma as a doctoral candidate in education. In light of a state law requiring segregation at institutions of higher education, the University assigned McLaurin to a seat in a row designated for African American students, restricted him to a special table at the library, and, although allowed to eat in the cafeteria at the same time as other students, limited him to a special table there. The Court ruled that such conditions violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court noted that the segregated conditions set McLaurin apart from his colleagues, inhibited his ability to study, and generally impaired his pursuit of a graduate degree.
Finally, Sweatt v. Painter (1950) involved equality in both the formal and the more informal elements of equality in graduate education. Petitioner Sweatt was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School, solely because the state law prohibited the admission of African Americans to the law school. Sweatt was instead offered admission to a law school that the state had established for African Americans. Sweatt filed suit on grounds that the policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court agreed, citing disparities between the two schools in terms of course offerings, opportunities for specialization, student body size, library holdings, and the availability of law review and other activities. The Court also recognized disparities in the more informal elements of legal education such as faculty reputation, the experience of the administration, influential alumni, community standings, tradition, and prestige.
Brown v. Board of Education was not the first legal challenge to racially segregated public schools in the US, a distinction that goes back to the 1849 case Roberts v. City of Boston, Massachusetts. It was rather the culmination of a long and concerted history of judicial challenges (Kluger 1976). The case itself was initiated and organized by the NAACP under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and later by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Mar shall. The NAACP recruited African American parents in Topeka, Kansas for a class action suit against the local school board. African American children in Topeka were only allowed to attend designated public schools, which were strictly based on race. The case is named for plaintiff Oliver L. Brown, the father of Topeka student Linda Brown.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the ‘‘separate but equal’’ doctrine that had previously structured public schooling throughout the country. Chief Justice Earl Warren showed significant consensus building skills through his ability to ensure a unanimous decision from the Court; this unanimity in turn reinforced the importance of the Court’s decision. Consolidating claims from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, DC, Brown ruled that, even though physical facilities and other tangible elements in public schools might be equal, laws permitting or requiring racial segregation in public schools violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. According to the Court, the segregation of children in public schools on the basis of race deprives minority students of equal educational opportunities. The Court also cited the work of social scientists Kenneth and Mamie Clark as evidence that segregation on the basis of race generates in minority students an enduring feeling of inferiority about their social status. In the ‘‘doll test,’’ for example, the Clarks used four dolls, identical except for color, to deter mine self-perception and racial preference among 3 to 7 year olds. When asked which doll they preferred, the majority of the minority children chose the white doll, and they assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks interpreted these findings to mean that ‘‘prejudice, discrimination, and segregation’’ caused children to develop a sense of inferiority. Based on these findings, the Court ruled that the doctrine of ‘‘separate but equal’’ has no place in public education and that separate facilities are by definition unequal.
Although ordering the positive step of integration lay beyond the jurisdiction of the Court, the Court could provide direction for dismantling the system of segregation it had prohibited. Brown v. Board of Education (1955), known as Brown II, provided these guidelines. Stopping short of mandating a specific implementation timeline, Brown II ordered that communities desegregate schools ‘‘with all deliberate speed.’’ The Court placed the primary responsibility for this process on school authorities, and it called on the lower courts to assess whether schools were making good faith efforts to desegregate.
Legal challenges to racial segregation in public schooling did not end with Brown, but rather continued consistently in the years following the 1954 decision (Russo 2004). In Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964) the Supreme Court prohibited the state of Virginia from undermining desegregation initiatives by establishing a ‘‘freedom of choice’’ program. Furthering this reasoning, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) provided ‘‘Green’’ factors for determining successful desegregation efforts, including the desegregation of facilities, faculty, and staff, extracurricular activities, and transportation. In 1971 the influential Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education ruled that schools could use numerical ratios and quotas as starting points in their efforts to desegregate. Notably, Swann brought the issue of busing into the desegregation debate, and the decision was the last unanimous Court ruling in a major school desegregation case. In Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (1973), the Court extended its focus from de jure to de facto segregation, claiming as unconstitutional not only legal segregation, but also any school board action that resulted in segregating schools.
The Court’s 1974 decision in Milliken v. Bradley (Milliken I ) contrasted its earlier, more proactive desegregation rulings. In this case, the Court ruled unconstitutional a multidistrict desegregation plan in Detroit, Michigan on the grounds that it compromised the autonomy of local districts. Since this decision, the Court has shown relatively little interest in continuing to pursue cases of educational desegregation, and federal presence from local remedies has fallen considerably from its 1970s levels.
Despite waning judicial interest in an active desegregation agenda, the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education shaped later civil rights legislation (as was intended by the NAACP in bringing the case). The Brown decision was a critical event in the Civil Rights Movement that eventually led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation that made discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, and other categories illegal in the US. Further, Brown was instrumental in laying the foundation for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which granted African Americans the right to vote. More recently, the elimination of the ‘‘separate but equal’’ doctrine established by Brown has been important in the extension of educational opportunity to students in special education programs and to Hispanic students.
While it is difficult to overestimate the significance of Brown, its implementation has often been slow and uncertain. In the years after the Court handed down its decision, many opponents of desegregation responded with both open and subtle tactics of resistance. Elected politicians at all levels – congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral – often openly defied the Brown decision under the doctrine of ‘‘states’ rights.’’ Resistance to the Brown decision was especially severe in such Southern cities as Little Rock, Arkansas, and Farmville, Virginia, although busing efforts in Northern cities, notably Boston, also met with opposition.
Along with resistance to the Brown decision and the Court’s position on desegregation have come challenges associated with de facto segregation, which results from segregated neighborhoods and racialized housing patterns. Although some neighborhoods have become less segregated over the past decade, concentrations of African American and Latino students in metro areas help to account for the continued existence of highly segregated public schools. For example, the country’s 27 largest urban school districts have lost the majority of their white students and now serve one fourth of the country’s African American and Latino students. Although white students are the most segregated group of students in the country, attending on average schools that are at least 80 percent white, Latino students are the most segregated minority group in terms of both race and poverty; many times, linguistic segregation exacerbates this latter situation. De facto segregation also helps to explain the development of what Frankenberg et al. (2003) call apartheid schools, which enroll almost all minority students and often deal with problems of widespread poverty and limited resources.
- Frankenberg, , Lee, C., & Orfield, G. (2003) A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream? The Civil Rights Project. Har vard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Kluger, R. (1976) Simple Justice: The History of Brown Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality.
- Alfred Knopf, New York. Orfield, G., Eaton, S. E., & the Harvard Project on School Desegregation (1996) Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New Press, New York.
- Russo, J. (2004) Brown v. Board of Education at 50: An Update on School Desegregation in the US. Education and the Law 16: 183-9.