Brown v. Board of Education
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions are often considered “landmark” or precedent-setting when they change basic tenets of daily life for residents throughout the country. One such decision was Brown v. Board of Education, which forever after set the standard for racial integration of public education.
The Brown case, brought against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was a unanimous decision of the court on May 17, 1954 that said separate educational facilities that segregated races was inherently illegal and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal treatment for all citizens.
The Board of Education argued that separate schools for black and white students were essentially equal but the Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the quality of education offered to black students under this system was inferior. At the time 17 states segregated public school students by race.
Kansas actually did not require segregated schools but the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) filed the lawsuit on behalf of several Topeka parents, making Oliver Brown, a welder, the symbolic plaintiff. They had previously tried the case in U.S. District Court but the court upheld an 1896 verdict, Plessy v. Ferguson, that affirmed separate but equal state law despite acknowledging that black students were receiving an inferior education.
When the Supreme Court took up the case, it actually combined the Topeka case with four others from around the country, all filed by the NAACP. Their attorney was Thurgood Marshall, who would become a member of the Supreme Court in 1967. The U.S. Justice Department even filed a friend of the court brief that alleged segregated schools made the country look bad around the world and effectively damaged the U.S. negotiations with those of dark skinned countries.
Although there was originally one dissenting voice, Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke to his colleagues and encouraged unanimity to forestall any Southern protests of the verdict. The verdict is still debated today, as some see the decision being akin to the Court overstepping its bounds.
The ruling opened the door to more than changes to the educational system. It was quickly followed by the Civil Rights Act in 1965.