Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring state-mandated school segregation unconstitutional, was perhaps the Court’s most important decision of the twentieth century. Prior to the Brown decision, seventeen states (including all eleven states of the old Confederacy) and the District of Columbia either permitted or required racial segregation in public schools. Although such segregation relegated black children to poorly funded separate schools and imposed on them the stigma of second-class citizenship, many states were determined not to allow black children to attend school with whites.

Since the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had brought a number of lawsuits challenging various aspects of racial segregation in education. Early lawsuits included challenges to the exclusion of blacks from white state university graduate and professional schools. After the Supreme Court in 1950 held in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) that the exclusion of black students from the University of Texas Law School (requiring them to attend a fledgling racially separate law school) violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the NAACP brought a number of lawsuits challenging racial segregation in elementary and secondary schools. Eventually, five of these suits—filed in Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia—were accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision declared state-mandated school segregation unconstitutional. The unanimity was hardly a foregone conclusion. After oral argument in the cases in 1952, the Court was sharply divided and scheduled reargument for 1953. In the meantime, Chief Justice Frederick Vinson died; his replacement, Earl Warren, worked skillfully and successfully to build unanimous support for a decision striking down segregation as violating the equal protection clause.

In its decision, the Court concluded that relegating black children to racially separate schools ‘‘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.’’ Quoting from the district court in the Kansas case, the Supreme Court elaborated: ‘‘‘Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group . . . . Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a [racially] integrated school system.’’’

In issuing its landmark decision, the Court postponed for one year the question of remedy. The Court heard argument on the remedy issue and on May 31, 1955, issued a second decision in the case, a decision that came to be known as ‘‘Brown II.’’ In this second decision, the Court directed lower courts to supervise the desegregation of southern school districts with ‘‘all deliberate speed’’—a directive that some white Southerners interpreted as signaling the Court’s willingness to tolerate some delay.

The Brown decisions did not lead to the immediate desegregation of southern school systems. Although a few communities did desegregate their schools in a token fashion within the next few years, most southern school districts refused to take any action. By the fall of 1957, only 0.15 percent of black children in the eleven states of the old Confederacy attended school with whites. Even this extraordinarily modest level of school desegregation provoked intense controversy and sometimes led to violence. For example, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus caused a national crisis when he ordered the Arkansas National Guard to bar nine black students from desegregating Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. President Dwight Eisenhower was eventually forced to deploy federal troops to defuse the Little Rock crisis. Southern resistance would continue. On the tenth anniversary of the first Brown decision—May 1964—only about 1.2 percent of Southern black children attended school with white children, and in a few states, such as Mississippi, desegregation had not even begun. In the meantime, the Supreme Court, with a few exceptions, remained largely silent on the issue of enforcing the desegregation mandate of Brown.

After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a fund withholding provision for entities (such as southern school districts) that engaged in racial discrimination, the pace of desegregation quickened. In 1965, the Office of Education of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) issued a set of guidelines defining for school officials minimum desegregation standards that must be satisfied in order to retain federal funding. These guidelines, coupled with the threat of losing federal funds, contributed to an increase in school desegregation. Moreover, lower federal courts during the late 1960s began to insist that southern school districts had an affirmative duty to increase desegregation levels. In a series of decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, culminating in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court reentered the fray and insisted on significant desegregation. In the Swann decision, the Court legitimated the use of extensive school busing as a desegregation remedy, a decision that had an immediate and profound effect on desegregation levels across the South and in several northern and western cities as well.

Although Brown did not lead to the immediate desegregation of southern schools, it did contribute to a renewed insistence among many blacks that racial segregation was morally and legally wrong and should be opposed. While the full impact of Brown would not be felt until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the decision was nevertheless a crucial event in the development of civil rights in American society. Moreover, Brown helped legitimate the notion that it is sometimes appropriate for courts to step in and overrule legislative bodies that have enacted laws that serve to harm racial and ethnic minorities.

DAVISON M. DOUGLAS

References and Further Reading

  • Cottrol, Robert J., Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware. Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. 
  • Klarman, Michael. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf, 1976. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971) 
  • Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)

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