Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It rejected “separate but equal” doctrine, advanced by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), according to which laws mandating separate public facilities for whites and African Americans do not violate the equal-protection clause if the facilities are approximately equal. Although the 1954 decision strictly applied only to public schools, it implied that segregation was not permissible in other public facilities. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka helped to inspire the American civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. 

The case was heard as a consolidation of four class-action lawsuits filed in four states by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on behalf of African American elementary and high-school students who had been denied admission to all-white public schools. The attorney who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who later served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court (196791). The case was reargued on December 8, 1953, to address the question of whether the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment would have understood it to be inconsistent with racial segregation in public education. The 1954 decision found that the historical evidence bearing on the issue was inconclusive.

 Writing for the court, Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that the question of whether racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal, and thus beyond the scope of the separate but equal doctrine, could be answered only by considering “the effect of segregation itself on public education.” Citing the Supreme Court’s rulings in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950), which recognized “intangible” inequalities between African American and all-white schools at the graduate level, Warren held that such inequalities also existed between the schools in the case before him, despite their equality with respect to “tangible” factors such as buildings and curricula. Specifically, he agreed with a finding of the Kansas district court that the policy of forcing African American children to attend separate schools solely because of their race created in them a feeling of inferiority that undermined their motivation to learn and deprived them of educational opportunities they would enjoy in racially integrated schools. This finding, he noted, was “amply supported” by contemporary psychological research. He concluded that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

In a subsequent opinion on the question of relief, Warren ordered the district courts and local school authorities to take appropriate steps to integrate public schools in their jurisdictions“with all deliberate speed.” Public schools in Southern states, however, remained almost completely segregated until the late 1960s.

Doll Test

In the 40s Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. The majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Brown lawyers relied on the research as part of their legal strategy. The social science testimony was endorsed by 35 social scientists.

The Supreme Court cited Clark’s 1950 paper in its Brown decision and acknowledged it implicitly in the following passage: “To separate [African-American 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.” Dr. Kenneth Clark was dismayed that the court failed to cite two other conclusions he had reached: that racism was an inherently American institution, and that school segregation inhibited the development of white children, too.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges was the eldest of eight children. Born in Mississippi, she was 4 years old when her family moved to New Orleans. Two years later a test was given to the city’s African American schoolchildren to determine which students could enter all-white schools. Bridges passed and was selected for enrollment at William Frantz Elementary School. Her father was initially opposed to her attending, but Bridges’s mother convinced him to let her enroll.

Of the six African American students who were supposed to integrate the school, Bridges was the only one to enroll. On November 14, 1960, four federal marshals escorted her to school. Bridges spent the entire day in the principal’s office as white parents removed their children. On her second day, Barbara Henry, a young teacher from Boston, began to teach her. The two worked together in a vacant classroom for an entire year. As the marshals escorted Bridges to school, they urged her to keep her eyes forward so that she would not have to see the racist remarks scrawled across signs or the livid faces of the protesters.

Brown v. Board