Source: American Experience: "Simple Justice"
In this video segment, NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall summarizes the reasons why the Supreme Court should outlaw segregation in public education. Brown v. Board of Education would become the most important civil rights case of the twentieth century.
In 1954, it was hard for many Americans to imagine what most students today take for granted: black and white children being able to go to the same school. The vast majority of America's schools were segregated.
The question of legalized segregation first surfaced in 1892, when a Louisiana man named John Homer Plessy (considered one-eighth black) challenged segregated seating on a train. He based his argument on the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled against him in Plessy v. Ferguson, arguing that as long as they were equal, separate facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The court's ruling became known as the "separate but equal" doctrine, and segregated public facilities, schools among them, became sanctioned by law.
However, separate didn't always mean equal. For example, in the early 1950s, the yearly per-pupil spending in South Carolina was $179 for white students, and $43 for black students. Where there were ample local schools and buses for white students, there were few for black students, forcing them to walk several miles to school on unpaved roads. The lack of funding meant that schools were often overcrowded and the buildings rundown. The highest paid black teacher still earned less than the lowest paid white teacher. And basic necessities like firewood for heat, janitors, and building repairs had to be provided by students, teachers, and parents.
In 1950, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) persuaded 200 people who were fighting for better conditions to fight for integrated schools. The plaintiffs came from South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.
The case that would eventually reach the Supreme Court was named Brown v. Board of Education because Oliver Brown, a parent from Topeka, Kansas, was the first name on the list of plaintiffs. Brown had tried to enroll his seven-year-old daughter, Linda, in the nearby Sumner Elementary School in Topeka and was denied admission based on race. Twelve other families in Topeka joined the Browns in their lawsuit.
When the case first went before the Supreme Court in 1952, it seemed an unlikely win. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, from Kentucky, favored the "separate but equal" doctrine, and the other eight justices were divided. After an initial hearing, the Court was unable to reach a decision and the case was rescheduled. However, before the case could be reheard, Vinson died of a heart attack and President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed California governor Earl Warren, a civil rights supporter, as chief justice.
The case was reargued the following year, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled (9-0) that segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. This landmark ruling overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine and generated at once a sense of hope and resistance across the country that would galvanize the Civil Rights movement. Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney for the NAACP, would later become the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.
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