On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools as unconstitutional in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Explore 10 illuminating facts about the lead-up to and aftermath of this defining civil rights moment.
1. Over one-third of states segregated their schools by law.
At the time of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, 17 southern and border states, along with the District of Columbia, required their public schools to be racially segregated. An additional four states—Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming—permitted local communities to do the same. Although black and white schools were supposed to be “separate but equal” in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, in reality they were anything but. In 1954 southern black schools received only 60 percent of the per-pupil funding as southern white schools, up from 45 percent in 1940. Many southern black schools therefore lacked such basic necessities as cafeterias, libraries, gymnasiums, running water and electricity.
2. Brown v. Board of Education started off as five cases.
In 1950 and 1951, lawsuits were filed in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia on behalf of black elementary school students who attended legally segregated schools. Despite differing somewhat in the details, all alleged a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Dozens of parents signed on as plaintiffs, including Topeka, Kansas, resident Oliver Brown, a welder and World War II veteran who served as an assistant pastor at his local church. When the Supreme Court consolidated the cases in 1952, Brown’s name appeared in the title. This was done on purpose, a Supreme Court justice later explained, “so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely southern one.”
3. The lower court cases all ended in defeat.
None of the five lower courts did away with the laws mandating segregated schools. In Kansas, for example, the ruling held that Topeka’s black schools were “substantially” equal enough to meet the Plessy doctrine. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs received some hopeful signs that the outcome would change on appeal. In South Carolina, Judge J. Waties Waring issued a dissenting opinion in which he called segregation in education “an evil that must be eradicated.” In Delaware, the court found that the 11 black children named in the case were entitled to attend the white school in their communities. And in Kansas, the court conceded that segregation had harmful effects.
4. The plaintiffs took great personal risks to be part of the case.
After the lawsuits were filed, a number of plaintiffs lost their jobs, as did members of their families, and other plaintiffs had their credit cut off. The retaliation was arguably most severe in South Carolina, where whites burned down the house and church of a particularly energized plaintiff, the Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine, and reportedly fired gunshots at him one night. DeLaine ended up fleeing the state, never to return. Judge Waring was also forced out. Facing death threats, he retired from the bench in 1952 and moved to New York City.
5. Thurgood Marshall argued the case for the plaintiffs.
The great-grandson of a slave, Thurgood Marshall attended Howard Law School prior to becoming the NAACP’s chief legal counsel. In the field of education, his civil rights cases initially focused on the inequalities between black and white schools. Starting in 1950, however, he moved to dismantle segregation itself. In Brown v. Board of Education—just one of his 32 appearances before the Supreme Court—Marshall opined that state-imposed segregation was inherently discriminatory and emotionally damaging. To bolster his argument, he cited several psychological studies, including one that found black children preferred white to brown-colored dolls. After the High Court ruled in his favor, Marshall declared, “I was so happy, I was numb.” He later became the first black justice on the Supreme Court, serving from 1967 to 1991.
6. The U.S. government largely backed Marshall’s position.
The U.S. Department of Justice rarely takes a position in Supreme Court cases that do not involve federal law. But it made an exception for Brown v. Board of Education, filing a friend-of-the-court brief that maintained “separate but equal” facilities were unconstitutional. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was less supportive. While the case was still being considered, he told Chief Justice Earl Warren that southern whites “are not bad people.” And after the Court had ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, he was reluctant to use his presidential authority to enforce the decision.
7. Brown v. Board of Education was a unanimous decision.
Following oral argument, Warren told his fellow justices that the “separate but equal” doctrine should be overturned. He then went about wooing those still on the fence, telling one that a dissent would encourage resistance in the South. In the end, all nine members of the court joined an opinion that Warren described as short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional and non-accusatory. Education is the “the very foundation of good citizenship,” the ruling stated. “To separate [black children] 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.”
8. The case had a sequel.
The Supreme Court included no guidance in Brown v. Board of Education on how to actually implement desegregation. Instead, it called for further court discussions, after which it issued a second unanimous ruling in May 1955. Known as Brown II, this seven-paragraph decision tasked local federal judges with making sure that school authorities integrated “with all deliberate speed”—an ambiguous phrase that repudiated the NAACP’s plea for tight deadlines.
9. The backlash to Brown v. Board of Education was widespread.
As expected, some southerners used all of the delay tactics at their disposal to avoid integrating. In 1958, for example, Virginia officials closed certain public schools rather than open them up to blacks, and in 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace famously proclaimed, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” By early 1964, only about 1 percent of black children in the former Confederacy attended school with whites, and those who did often endured constant harassment. Desegregation efforts would not get going in earnest until the later part of that decade.
10. U.S. schools today remain widely segregated.
Although racial minorities have made a number of educational advancements since Brown v. Board of Education, the decision did not succeed in a wholesale dismantling of school segregation. In New York City, for instance, more than half of public schools are reportedly at least 90 percent black and Hispanic, and in Alabama nearly a quarter of black students attend a school with white enrollment of 1 percent or less. Many civil rights advocates even point to what they believe is a “resegregation” trend. According to a report issued last month by the Economic Policy Institute, low-income black children are currently more racially and socioeconomically isolated than at any time since the 1980s.