The unanimous May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision known informally as Brown sent shock waves through a deeply segregated nation and strengthened the growing African-American Civil Rights movement. Intended to end the racial segregation of public schools, the Brown decision made important inroads, but educational equality for minorities remained elusive.
By 1948 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, headed by lawyer Thurgood Marshall, was focusing on dramatically unequal public schools. Eventually they would bring to the nation’s highest court a group of five lawsuits initiated by African-American parents from South Carolina; Virginia; Washington, DC; Delaware; and Topeka, Kansas.
The Brown case was named for Oliver Brown, the pastor father of Linda, a seven-year-old third-grader. She daily navigated a Topeka rail yard and busy roads to attend an all-black school although a white school was nearby. Compared to other school systems in the Brown case, Topeka provided relatively equal facilities to its tiny black population; community activists emphasized that racial separation made black children there feel inferior.
The combined cases reached the Supreme Court in 1952, but its ruling was postponed in anticipation of a rehearing. By then the Court had a newly appointed chief justice, Earl Warren, a former Republican governor of California. Brown would become the first of many cases that made the Warren Court a byword for judicial activism on behalf of America’s disenfranchised.
Warren read the 11-page decision aloud. It invoked the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment in support of equal protection for minorities. It marshaled sociological and psychological evidence showing that racial separation, especially of children, rendered them “inherently unequal.” And Brown invalidated Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that had affirmed the doctrine of “separate but equal.” In 1955 with a decision dubbed Brown II, the Court urged federal judges to undo school segregation “with all deliberate speed.”
By then a forceful white backlash had emerged. Although some southern and border states began to educate black and white children together, many districts defied the Court’s suggestions. In 1956 a “Southern Manifesto,” initiated by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, accused the Court of abusing its power and vowed to reverse Brown. It was signed by 19 of 22 southern senators and 77 of 105 representatives.
In cities like Charlotte and New Orleans efforts to enroll black children in white schools were met with hostility and outright violence. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 an attempt by nine carefully chosen black students to attend Central High School was met with spitting, kicking, and death threats, encouraged by Governor Orval Faubus. Reluctantly President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered army and national guard troops into Little Rock to restore order. By 1964 only 1.2 percent of black children in 11 southern states were attending school with white children. Many whites left public schools for nominally “private” academies.
The situation “up north” was hardly better. There, segregation occurred not by law (de jure), but by longstanding patterns of racial housing discrimination (de facto). In the 1970s a Boston judicial plan to bus black students to predominantly white schools triggered violent protests not unlike those in Little Rock, as white families fled to suburban schools.
Meanwhile African-American parents, most at first delighted by Brown, questioned the aims of racial integration and doubted its realization. They argued that adequate school budgets and resources were more important than seating their children next to whites in the classroom.
In 1967 the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American justice appointed to the Supreme Court, but the racial equality he had worked to achieve remained only partially implemented when Brown’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2004.