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Landmark: Brown v. Board of Education

Brown at 60

Nettie and Nicki Hunt at Supreme Court

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12/09/52
Education | Desegregation

May 17, 1954 marks a defining moment in the history of the United States.  On that day, the Supreme Court declared  the doctrine of  “separate but equal” unconstititutional and handed LDF  the most celebrated victory in its storied history.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown was ultimately unanimous, it occurred only after a hard-fought, multi-year campaign to persuade all nine justices to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine that their predecessors had endorsed in the Court’s infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.  This campaign was conceived in the 1930s by Charles Hamilton Houston, then Dean of Howard Law School, and brilliantly executed in a series of cases over the next two decades by his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall, who became LDF’s first Director-Counsel. 

Brown itself was not a single case, but rather a coordinated group of five lawsuits against school districts in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.  To litigate these cases, Marshall recruited the nation’s best attorneys, including Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, Louis Redding, Charles and John Scott, Harold R. Boulware, James Nabrit, and George E.C. Hayes.  These LDF lawyers were assisted by a brain trust of legal scholars, including future federal district court judges Louis Pollack and Jack Weinstein, along with William Coleman, the first black person to serve as a Supreme Court law clerk.  In addition, LDF relied upon research by historians, such as John Hope Franklin, and an array of social science arguments. This research included psychologist Kenneth Clark’s now famous doll experiments, which demonstrated the impact of segregation on black children - Clark found black children were led to believe that black dolls were inferior to white dolls and, by extension, that they were inferior to their white peers. 

After the five cases were heard together by the Court in December 1952, the outcome remained uncertain.  The Court ordered the parties to answer a series of questions about the specific intent of the Congressmen and Senators who framed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and about the Court’s power to dismantle segregation.  Then the Court scheduled another oral argument in December 1953.  Wrapping up his presentation to the Court in that second hearing, Marshall emphasized that segregation was rooted in the desire to keep “the people who were formerly in slavery as near to that stage as is possible.”   Even with such powerful arguments from Marshall and other LDF attorneys, it took another five months for the newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren’s behind-the-scenes lobbying to yield a unanimous decision. 

Recognizing the controversial nature of its decision, the Court waited another year to issue an order enforcing the decision in Brown II.  Even then, the Court was unwilling to establish a firm timetable for dismantling segregation.  It ruled only that public schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”  Unfortunately, desegregation was neither deliberate nor speedy.  In the face of fierce and often violent “massive resistance, ” LDF sued hundreds of school districts across the country to vindicate the promise of Brown.  It was not until LDF’s subsequent victories in Green v. County School Board (1968) and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) that the Supreme Court issued mandates that segregation be dismantled “root and branch,” outlined specific factors to be considered to eliminate effects of segregation, and ensured that federal district courts had the authority to do so.

Even today, the work of Brown is far from finished .  Over 200 school desegregation cases remain open on federal court dockets; LDF alone has nearly 100 of these cases.  Recent Supreme Court decisions have made it harder to achieve and maintain school desegregation.  As a result of these developments and other factors, public school children are more racially isolated now than at any point in the past four decades.  This backsliding makes it even more critical for LDF to continue defending the principles articulated in Brown and leading the ongoing struggle to provide an equal opportunity to learn for children in every one of our nation’s classrooms.  As then Senator Obama observed in a 2008 speech in Philadelphia, “segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education – and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”

The legal victory in Brown did not transform the country overnight, and much work remains.  But striking down segregation in the nation’s public schools provided a major catalyst for the civil rights movement, making possible advances in desegregating housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher education.  The decision gave hope to millions of Americans by permanently discrediting the legal rationale underpinning the racial caste system that had been endorsed or accepted by governments at all levels since the end of the nineteenth century. And its impact has been felt by every American.