Brown v. Board of Education

The Case that Transformed America

On May 17, 1954, a decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case declared the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional. The landmark Brown v. Board decision gave LDF its most celebrated victory in a long, storied history of fighting for civil rights and marked a defining moment in US history. The decision in Brown v. Board remains a defining moment in U.S. history.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education occurred 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–the man who became Legal Defense Fund’s first Director-Counsel and a Supreme Court Justice.

Brown v. Board of Education 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. 

PHOTO: Students and their parents who initiated the landmark Civil Rights lawsuit 'Brown V Board of Education,' Topeka, Kansas, 1953, Pictured are, front row, from left, students, Vicki Henderson, Donald Henderson, Linda Brown James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and Katherine Carper; back row, from left, parents Zelma Henderson, Oliver Brown, Sadie Emanuel, Lucinda Todd, and Lena Carper. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

To litigate these cases, Thurgood 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.

Their argument was clear: The 14th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws, and racial segregation violates that principle. The lawyers marshalled expert witnesses to prove what most of us take for granted today, that state-enforced racial segregation in education “deprives [Black children] of equal status in the school community…destroys their self-respect, denies them full opportunity for democratic social development [and]…stamps [them] with a badge of inferiority.”

LDF relied upon research by historians like John Hope Franklin, and the work of social science researchers like June Shagaloff. Ms. Shagaloff was brought on staff by Marshall because he felt that chronicling the impact of segregation on children and families was critical to the success of LDF’s litigation. Her historical and social science research played a key role in LDF’s preparation for the successful Brown v. Board arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s now-famous doll experiments were also central to LDF’s success in Brown v. Board. The experiments demonstrated the impact of segregation on black children. In presenting three to seven-year-old children with four dolls, identical except for color, 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. The Supreme Court cited Clark’s 1950 paper in its Brown decision and acknowledged it implicitly in the following passage: “To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The Doll Test

In the 1940s, pioneering psychologists Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on Black children.

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.  The Court then 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 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 IIEven then, the Court was unwilling to establish a firm timetable for dismantling segregation. It ruled only that public schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

LDF Clients and Lawyers Risked Their Lives for this Fight

Black women and girls were the voices behind the school desegregation movement since the beginning, but have often been relegated to the footnotes of history. In the Kansas case that became Brown v. Board, all but one of the plaintiffs were women. Black women and girls bravely took action to transform the American educational system and bring an end to segregation

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.

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.

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