In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, challenging centuries of legalized segregation in America. It was considered the most important civil rights case of the twentieth century. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Court's unanimous opinion.
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate facilities were legal as long as they were equal. However, during the first half of the twentieth century, separate facilities were rarely equal. In most southern and border states, facilities and equipment in white schools were decidedly superior to those in black schools. Black teachers holding similar or advanced degrees usually were paid less than their white counterparts. In rural areas of the South where buses carried students to school, buses were rarely provided for black schoolchildren.
During the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) embarked on a strategy to use the Fourteenth Amendment to challenge segregation and discrimination in public education. Beginning first with state-supported graduate and professional schools, by the end of World War II it had won several legal victories. Then in 1946, a group of Mexican Americans from California, citing the Fourteenth Amendment, won a class action lawsuit to desegregate the Los Angeles public schools. In this case, Mendez v. Westminster, the judge ruled against the "separate but equal" doctrine and argued that separate schools are inherently unequal. This encouraged the NAACP to challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine in public schools in southern and border states, including the District of Columbia.
From 1947 to 1951, the NAACP encouraged black parents in Clarendon County, South Carolina (Briggs v. Elliott); Prince Edward County, Virginia (Davis v. Prince Edward County); the Wilmington, Delaware, area (Gebhart v. Belton); Topeka, Kansas (Brown v. Board of Education); and Washington, D.C. (Bolling v. Sharpe), to file suit in federal district court against segregated schools. The plaintiffs in four of the school desegregation cases argued that school segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment by denying black schoolchildren "equal protection of the laws." In the fifth case, Bolling v. Sharpe, the plaintiffs contended that black schoolchildren in Washington, D.C., were denied the right to attend a desegregated school as guaranteed by the "due process" provision of the Fifth Amendment.
While the NAACP and the parents lost four of these five cases on the local level (the Delaware case being the exception), the organization was setting the stage for how these five cases would advance on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to combine four of the cases into a single judgment, referred to as Brown v. Board of Education.
Brown was first heard in 1952, but the Court was divided and issued no ruling. The justices agreed to rehear the case at a later date, but in 1953, just before the case was to be reheard, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died of a heart attack. Vinson, a segregationist from Kentucky, supported the "separate but equal" doctrine and was unlikely to overturn the Court's previous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. 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 May 17, 1954, the Court ruled 9-0 that segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Warren wrote the Court's opinion, declaring that "the separate but equal doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson has no place in the field of public education."
Brown v. Board of Education is considered the most important civil rights case in American history, but even with a unanimous Supreme Court, the nation remained divided. Without the power of enforcement, the Court's ruling had limited impact. Many southern states ignored the ruling and accused the judiciary of infringing on states' rights. It was left to parents to sue their local school boards in order to force the integration of schools.
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