In 1951, Oliver Brown challenged the segregation of schools in Topeka, Kansas. The case reached the national stage with the help of NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall (later a Supreme Court Justice).
The Supreme Court combined five cases — Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (Va), Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel — for rehearing in 1954. Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter reargued the cases.
History of Segregation
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown discredited the legal rationale for segregation, opening the door for the desegregation of housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher learning. It gave hope to millions of Americans and enabled the Civil Rights Movement to advance.
Even so, the impact of Brown was not immediate. Segregation continued to persist, though the level of segregation shifted. Rather than being geographically defined, segregation became more micro-level, as neighborhoods within cities and towns were grouped by race. Segregation still existed, but it was no longer the legally sanctioned practice that it had been in the 1950s.
In the years following Brown, the NAACP launched a series of lawsuits against school districts nationwide. The cases were complex, and Thurgood Marshall recruited the country’s best lawyers.
One of the critical arguments that lawyers made was that the segregation that remained rarely, if ever, produced equality.
The Court was divided over the case, with the majority believing that the Constitution gave them the power to order the end of segregation. At the same time, the judicial restraint faction thought otherwise.
Origins of the Case
In 1950, Oliver Brown, a black church pastor living in Topeka, Kansas, tried to enroll his daughter Linda at Sumner Elementary School, only to find out it was a white school. He then had to take her by bus to a segregated black school further away, a situation that twelve other families in the area shared. Together, they filed a class action lawsuit in federal Court against the local public schools board, arguing that their segregation policy was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs in the case a unanimous ruling. This was a result of a hard-fought, multi-year campaign by Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of Howard Law School and founder of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall—who would later become LDF’s first Director-Counsel and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Despite this, there is still some debate about the impact of the Brown v Board of Education decision. Most scholars agree that while Brown v. Board of Education did not directly lead to school desegregation in the decade following its ruling, it served as a crucial inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement and helped to fuel the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. However, a smaller group of scholars believe that the Civil Rights Movement would have emerged regardless of Brown and that it was not a necessary precursor to ending legal segregation.
Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court
The decision to desegregate schools was one of the most significant decisions made by the Supreme Court. The case resulted from the efforts of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, attorneys with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, who had worked on school segregation cases since the 1930s.
One thousand nine hundred fifty-two, the Supreme Court consolidated five class-action school segregation suits to hear Brown. The cases that challenged the constitutionality of segregation were Briggs v. Elliott, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in Virginia, Gebhart v. Belton in Delaware, and Bolling v. Sharpe in Maryland. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Despite the victory, the decision did not immediately lead to school desegregation. Some counties began to integrate in response to the ruling, but many elected officials and school boards resisted. They hoped to delay the integration process until the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum.
While scholars differ about how impactful the decision was, most agree that it catalyzed to end the legal segregation of American schools. It led to the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The backlash after Brown — including racist politicians avoiding the implementation of the decision and racist organizations like the White Citizens Councils attempting to uphold Southern segregation — is often cited as a significant factor in the civil rights movement’s eventual success.
Many scholars have agreed that Brown v Board of Education was an important milestone in American history. Although it did not immediately end segregation, it did provide momentum for the Civil Rights Movement, allowing many families to take up the fight to desegregate schools and other institutions like libraries, hospitals, and churches. In addition, it put the Supreme Court on the side of racial equality and gave the Civil Rights Movement a powerful legal tool in the fight against legal segregation.
In the aftermath of Brown, the Supreme Court consolidated it with three other class action school segregation cases. These cases, like Brown, challenged the constitutionality of segregated schools because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
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