Source: American Experience: "Simple Justice"
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. Forty-eight years later, the Court reconsidered that argument in Brown v. Board of Education. This video segment from American Experience: "Simple Justice" captures the complexity of the issues before the Court.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, yet just two years earlier, the Court had been divided. The issue at the heart of Brown was whether the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause applied to segregated schools.
Legal precedent supported segregation. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregated facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. That decision came to be known as the "separate but equal" doctrine, and segregation became sanctioned by law. The decision in Brown would either confirm or overturn the ruling in Plessy, and ultimately either support or outlaw the segregated schools that existed across the country.
In 1952, when the Court first heard the arguments in Brown, Chief Justice Fred Vinson supported segregation and favored upholding Plessy. The other eight members of the Court - justices Hugo Black, Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, Harold Burton, William Douglas, Thomas Clark, Robert Jackson, and Sherman Minton -- were divided over the segregation issue.
The justices met on December 13 for a preliminary hearing, but they could not agree. Justice Frankfurter and others had doubts about the legal precedent established in Plessy, while Justice Reed and Chief Justice Vinson did not see the "separate but equal" doctrine as discriminatory. In fact, they believed it fulfilled the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection requirements and would have voted to uphold Plessy. Whatever their leanings, all of the justices agreed with Frankfurter's suggestion that the case should be reargued.
Brown was scheduled to be reargued in the fall of 1953, but an unexpected event occurred that September. Chief Justice Vinson died of a heart attack. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, repaying a political favor after the election, appointed California governor Earl Warren as the new chief justice, changing the composition of the Court.
On December 12, 1953, the Court reconvened, but the justices still couldn't agree. The history of the Fourteenth Amendment was unclear. On the one hand, an argument could be made that Congress intended to create equality for all Americans, yet when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, schools in the nation's capital were, in fact, segregated. As a result, lawyers on both sides of the case were left without conclusive evidence on which to base legal reasoning.
A key argument in the case was the social science evidence presented by the NAACP attorneys and based on Dr. Kenneth Clark's doll test. It convinced Chief Justice Warren and Justice Douglas that segregation reinforced the notion that blacks were inferior to whites and was psychologically damaging to black children, thereby making "separate but equal" unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justices Frankfurter and Jackson were in favor of overturning Plessy, but they felt that the arguments rested too heavily on the political and personal feelings of the justices to be called a legal decision. Moreover, there was the question of how desegregation would be implemented. This was the first time the federal government had intervened in public schools, an area traditionally overseen by state governments. Justice Clark, for example, agreed that segregation must be outlawed but that the remedy needed to be crafted carefully, taking into account local conditions.
In the end, the justices reached a unanimous decision. On May 17, 1954, the Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, but left the question of implementation for another day. That day would be over a year away, and that decision would rest on the interpretation of the phrase "with all deliberate speed."
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