On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren issued the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The upshot: Students of color in America would no longer be forced by law to attend traditionally under-resourced black-only schools.
The decision marked a legal turning point for the American civil-rights movement. But it would take much more than a decree from the nation’s highest court to change hearts, minds and two centuries of entrenched racism. Brown was initially met with inertia and, in most southern states, active resistance. More than half a century later, progress has been made, but the vision of Warren’s court has not been fully realized.
The Supreme Court ruled “separate” meant unequal.
The landmark case began as five separate class-action lawsuits brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on behalf of black schoolchildren and their families in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The lead plaintiff, Oliver Brown, had filed suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas in 1951, after his daughter Linda was denied admission to a white elementary school.
Her all-black school, Monroe Elementary, was fortunate—and unique—to be endowed with well-kept facilities, well-trained teachers and adequate materials. But the other four lawsuits embedded in the Brown case pointed to more common fundamental challenges. The case in Clarendon, South Carolina described school buildings as no more than dilapidated wooden shacks. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the high school had no cafeteria, gym, nurse’s office or teachers’ restrooms, and overcrowding led to students being housed in an old school bus and tar-paper shacks.
With Brown v. Board the Supreme Court ruled against segregation for the first time since reconstruction.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board marked a shining moment in the NAACP’s decades-long campaign to combat school segregation. In declaring school segregation as unconstitutional, the Court overturned the longstanding “separate but equal” doctrine established nearly 60 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In his opinion, Chief Justice Warren asserted public education was an essential right that deserved equal protection, stating unequivocally that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Still, Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lead lawyer from the plaintiffs, knew the fight was far from over—and that the high court’s decision was only a first step in the long, complicated process of dismantling institutionalized racism. He warned his colleagues soon after the verdict came down: “The fight has just begun.”
A watershed moment for desegregation, Brown v. Board did not instantly desegregate schools.
In its landmark ruling, the Supreme Court didn’t specify exactly how to end school segregation, but rather asked to hear further arguments on the issue. The Court’s timidity, combined with steadfast local resistance, meant that the bold Brown v. Board of Education ruling did little on the community level to achieve the goal of desegregation. Black students, to a large degree, still attended schools with substandard facilities, out-of-date textbooks and often no basic school supplies.
In a 1955 case known as Brown v. Board II, the Court gave much of the responsibility for the implementation of desegregation to local school authorities and lower courts, urging that the process proceed “with all deliberate speed.” The problem? Many lower court judges in the South, who had been appointed by segregationist politicians, were emboldened to resist desegregation by the Court’s lackluster enforcement of the Brown decision. In Prince Edward County, where one of the five class-action suits behind Brown was filed, the Board of Supervisors refused to appropriate funds for the County School Board, choosing to shut down the public schools for five years rather than integrate them.
This backlash against the Court’s verdict reached the highest levels of government: In 1956, 82 representatives and 19 senators endorsed a so-called “Southern Manifesto” in Congress, urging Southerners to use all “lawful means” at their disposal to resist the “chaos and confusion” that school desegregation would cause.
In 1964, a full decade after the decision, more than 98 percent of black children in the South still attended segregated schools.
The Brown ruling was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
For the first time since the Reconstruction Era, the Court’s ruling focused national attention on the subjugation of black Americans. The result? The growth of the nascent civil-rights movement, which would doggedly challenge segregation and demand legal equality for blacks through boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides and voter-registration drives.
The Brown verdict inspired Southern blacks to defy restrictive and punitive Jim Crow laws, however, the ruling also galvanized Southern whites in defense of segregation—including the infamous standoff at a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Violence against civil-rights activists escalated, outraging many in the North and abroad, helping to speed up the passage of major civil-rights and voting-rights legislation by the mid-‘60s.
Finally, in 1964, two provisions within the Civil Rights Act effectively gave the federal government the power to enforce school desegregation for the first time: The Justice Department could sue schools that refused to integrate, and the government could withhold funding from segregated schools. Within five years after the act took effect, nearly a third of black children in the South attended integrated schools, and that figure reached as high as 90 percent by 1973.
The legacy and impact of Brown v. Board.
More than 60 years after the landmark ruling, assessing its impact remains a complicated endeavor. The Court’s verdict certainly fell short of initial hopes that it would end school segregation in America for good, and some argued that larger social and political forces within the nation played a far greater role in ending segregation.
As the Supreme Court has grown increasingly polarized along political lines, both conservative and liberal justices have claimed the legacy of Brown v. Board to argue different sides in the constitutional debate. In 2007, the Court ruled 5-4 against allowing public schools to take race into account in their admission policies in order to achieve or maintain integration. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, asserted: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And in a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the ruling “rewrites the history of one of this court’s most important decisions.”
Are schools still ‘separate but equal’ in the 21st century?
School segregation remains in force all over America today, largely because many of the neighborhoods in which schools are still located are themselves segregated. Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and later judicial decisions making racial discrimination illegal, exclusionary economic-zoning laws still bar low-income and working-class Americans from many neighborhoods, which in many cases reduces their access to higher quality schools. And the situation appears to be getting worse: According to a 2014 report by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute report, as of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board verdict the typical black student attended a school where only 29 percent of his or her fellow students were white, down from some 36 percent in 1980.
As the face of America is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and as schools around the country fight for shrinking resources, the question remains whether public schools will ever be able to serve all its students equally.