Education Policy

Brown v Board of Education – The Law in Education

Brown v Board bannerby Makiah Lyons, J.D., & Paige Duggins-Clay, J.D.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Brown is commonly considered one of the most important civil rights victories in U.S. history.

Brown, at its core, was about the simple recognition that education is a right that, as Chief Justice Warren put it in his unanimous opinion, “must be available to all on equal terms.” And although this might seem counterintuitive, that overarching question had long been settled, going back to perhaps one of the most infamous cases in U.S. legal history: Plessy v. Ferguson.

In Plessy, which was decided over 50 years before Brown, the Supreme Court expressly stated: “The object of the [14th] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law.”

But of course, there’s more. The Plessy Court went on to state, “But in the nature of things, it [referring to the 14th Amendment] could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races.” The court stated two legal concepts: (1) that “laws permitting, and even requiring, [racial] separation… do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other,” and (2) that states had the power and discretion to implement segregation laws essentially at their pleasure.

So the real question presented in Brown was not whether Black children deserved equality in education. The case was about the meaning of “equality” and whether segregation practices in education could ever be equal.

The answer to this question is a resounding “never.” Immediately following Plessy, to the extent that states and communities even made schools available to Black children, they suffered from inadequate financing, poor educational facilities, and racist curricula. By law, Black schools received less money per student and had larger class sizes than white schools. Black schoolchildren were more likely to be absent from school than white students, and Black teachers received less pay and training than their white peers.

This was happening across the country and was highlighted by the students and parents who filed suit in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. In each of these cases, the plaintiffs demonstrated compelling, heart-wrenching evidence of the impact of Plessy’s ruling on public education.

Case Background

The NAACP was founded in 1909. In the 1930s, the NAACP began to focus on integration, seeking a way to challenge racial segregation in public schools. In 1940, future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), the country’s first civil and human rights law firm.

LDF launched a campaign against racial segregation in public education. At this time, Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” was the controlling legal doctrine holding that racial segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as long as the facilities provided for both races were roughly equal.

In March of 1945, Latino parents and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), sued four local school districts for segregating their children into separate schools designated for Mexican students. Thurgood Marshall co-authored an amicus brief filed by the NAACP.  The 1946 ruling in Mendez v. Westminster prohibited segregation in California’s public schools and foreshadowed Brown.

The NAACP had filed previous cases challenging this principle in schools where the physical conditions of Black schools were vastly inferior compared to the facilities white students attended. In those cases, judges ordered school districts to provide funding to equalize the conditions of the schools but did not rule segregation itself unconstitutional.

In response, school districts often provided enough funding to make the lawsuits go away but not enough to actually provide Black schools with facilities, staff and resources comparable to that of white schools.

The NAACP coordinated legal challenges in communities across the country to challenge segregation. Five separate challenges stemming from Kansas, Delaware, Washington, D.C., South Carolina, and Virginia culminated in the 1954 Brown case.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka – Topeka, Kansas

Topeka schools were created specifically to be “separate but equal,” attempting to create segregated facilities that were as close to equal as possible. However, many Black students in Topeka were required to travel long distances to attend Black schools and were not permitted to attend nearby white schools.

In 1951, the local NAACP chapter in Topeka filed suit in the U.S. District Court on behalf of families who attempted to enroll their students in the nearby schools but were turned away. Relying on Plessy v. Ferguson, the district court ruled that Topeka’s segregated schools did not violate the 14th Amendment because the schools were roughly equal. The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and were joined by four other cases.

• Briggs v. Elliot – Clarendon County, South Carolina

In 1947, public school officials in Clarendon County, South Carolina, refused to provide bus transportation to Black school children, some of whom walked eight miles to school each day. In 1949, a local attorney named Harold Boulware, with the support of the NAACP, collected enough signatures from parents and students to file a complaint in a U.S. District Court.

In 1950, civil rights attorneys from the LDF, including Thurgood Marshall and Spottswood Robinson, filed suit challenging not only the discriminatory transportation system but challenging segregation itself. Instead of finding segregation unconstitutional, the court ordered the school board to equalize the schools. The NAACP appealed this decision, and the case went to the Supreme Court for review.

70 years of Brown v. Board of Education coverSee IDRA’s eBook: 70 years of Brown v. Board of Education – Reflecting on a New Generation of Civil Rights in Education, by Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., IDRA, May 2024

• Bolling v. Sharpe – Washington, District of Columbia

In the 1940s, Black schools in Washington, D.C., experienced severe overcrowding while neighboring white schools were underpopulated. The PTA at Browne Junior High, a Black school, demanded that Black students be allowed to attend white schools that had ample space.

The Consolidated Parent Group was formed, and it filed a grievance with the school board. Years later, in 1950, the founder of the Consolidated Parent Group led a group of 11 Black students into a new white high school and demanded their enrollment. Despite having many empty classrooms in the building, the students were denied enrollment.

Former Dean of Howard University School of Law and special counsel to the NAACP, Charles Hamilton Houston began building the plaintiff’s case, later passing it to NAACP colleagues James Nabrit, Jr. and George E.C. Hayes. Hayes filed a complaint on behalf of the 11 students and the Consolidated Parent Group, challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation.

• Davis v. County School BoardFarmville, Virginia

In 1951, 450 students protested the County Schoolboard of Prince Edward County’s indifference to their requests to build a new school facility for Black students who had been experiencing significant overcrowding and inferior school facilities. Student organizers contacted the NAACP for assistance and NAACP attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson agreed to assist them if the students had the support of their parents and the students were willing to challenge segregation itself, rather than focusing on the construction of a new school.

A few weeks later, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on behalf of 117 students, arguing that segregation was unconstitutional. The U.S. District Court rejected the NAACP’s argument, instead issuing an equalization order to the school board. The NAACP then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

• Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart – Wilmington, Delaware

The parents of a high school student named Ethel Belton contacted a local attorney, the first Black attorney in the state, Louis Redding, through the local chapter of the NAACP. Their daughter was forced to travel past a local white high school to attend a Black high school that was overcrowded and under-resourced. The mother of an eight-year-old girl named Shirley Bulah also contacted Redding because Shirley was denied admission to a local white school. Shirley was also not permitted to ride a school bus to her school two miles away because the buses were for white students only.

In 1951, Redding, with the help of Jack Greenberg from the NAACP, argued both cases, consolidated into one by Delaware’s Court of Chancery. The chancellor found an equal protection violation in the unequal conditions that the plaintiffs endured. The chancellor did not find segregation unconstitutional but found such substantial inequality that he ordered the schools to integrate. Both the board of education and the NAACP appealed this decision ultimately reaching the Supreme Court and consolidating into Brown.

Brown v. Board of Education on Review by the U.S. Supreme Court

In Brown, students and families were represented by a team of legendary civil rights attorneys, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. They argued that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

In a brief to the Supreme Court, they argued that even where school districts provide equal resources and facilities to both white and Black schools, the underlying rationale for segregation remained a belief that Black students are inferior to white students, a message that detrimentally impacted Black children and their educational, mental and emotional development. The NAACP relied heavily on historical and social science research to demonstrate the detrimental impact of segregation on Black students. This included a now-famous psychological study conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark using dolls to demonstrate that Black children displayed a preference for white dolls and felt Black dolls to be inferior.

Delivering the unanimous opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote of Black children, “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that “separate but equal” had no place in public education. The Supreme Court held that racially segregated school facilities were inherently unequal and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Podcast 223 Brown v Board

Reactions to Brown and Massive Resistance

The Brown ruling was followed by swift backlash and condemnation, particularly in southern states. In August of 1954, the Governor of Virginia, Thomas Bahnson Stanley founded the Commission on Public Education, chaired by Virginia Senator Garland Gray to conspire to defy Brown. The commission, also known as the Gray Commission, believed that local governments were better situated than state governments to evade “enforced integration.” The commission believed that local school boards should have the power to assign students to schools and manage the process of desegregating schools, even if local school boards chose to close public schools instead of integrating. The commission also wanted to give tuition vouchers to parents who refused to send their children to school with Black students.

The following year in 1955, The U.S. Supreme Court considered the question of Brown’s implementation in a decision referred to as Brown II. The court ruled that local governments should integrate “with all deliberate speed.” This gradualist approach to integration did not impose any clear guidelines or deadlines to integrate and gave judges broad discretion in the oversight of these processes. Lawmakers in southern states saw this as an opportunity to undermine integration.

In 1956, Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia issued a call for “Massive Resistance,” a campaign to stall integration and enforce segregation. The majority of the U.S. South’s representatives in Congress signed Senator Byrd’s “Southern Manifesto on Integration,” opposing Brown as a “clear abuse of judicial power” and pledging to resist the ruling.

Massive resistance efforts were effective for many years. At the start of the 1964-65 school year, fewer than 3% of the South’s Black children attended integrated schools. In Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1%.

Some local governments decided that closing public schools altogether was favorable to integration. One of the more famous instances of massive resistance in motion took place in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, when nine students attempted to enroll in Little Rock Central High School and were confronted by angry mobs and blocked from entering the school by the Arkansas National Guard. The students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were escorted to school by federal troops. A federal court granted the Little Rock School Board a delay on the implementation of desegregation orders until 1961. The NAACP appealed this decision to the Supreme Court which ruled the Little Rock to integrate immediately. Through a special election, Little Rock voted to close public schools for a year rather than integrate.

Brown’s Legacy and Future

Following Brown, Black students experienced a 30% increase in graduation rates and a 22% decrease in poverty. Brown’s decision opened the doors for desegregation in other areas like higher education, housing and public accommodations. While Brown is celebrated as one of the most important civil rights victories in U.S. history, much work remains to ensure that integration actualizes and that the promise of Brown is fulfilled. Though our country’s public school system is more diverse than it was 70 years ago when Brown was decided, students remain highly segregated across race, ethnic and economic class lines.

Unfortunately, privatization rhetoric and private school voucher bills and laws of our present-day bear striking resemblance to those wielded by pro-segregationists following the Brown ruling. These laws and policies frustrate the progress of Brown, diverting public education funding to more segregated private schools.

As we reflect on Brown’s 70th anniversary, we celebrate the students, families and advocates who forged a new path for realizing civil and human rights. And we will honor their contributions and sacrifice by continuing to advocate equal and equitable educational opportunities for all students through strong public schools.

Learn more about Brown v. Board of Education

The Law in Education – Brown v Board of Ed – Podcast Episode 223

70 years of Brown v. Board of Education – Reflecting on a New Generation of Civil Rights in Education, by Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., IDRA, May 2024 

Six Generations of Civil Rights and Educational Equity, IDRA Infographic

Six Goals of Educational Equity, IDRA Infographic

Equal Access to a Quality Education – The Civil Rights Issue of Our Generation, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel keynote, March 29, 2011

A Promise to Fulfill the Legacy of Mendez & Brown, IDRA website