On May 17th the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education turns 61. Brown invalidated racial segregation in public schools throughout the United States and paved the way for integration in nearly every aspect of American life. The case was litigated by some of the nation’s best attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, Louis Redding and James Nabrit, among others.
Brown was the culmination of years of legal challenges mounted across the country by LDF attorneys. These cases argued that segregation in K-12 education violated the right of every citizen to equal protection under the law under the 14th amendment. The strategy leading to Brown was conceived in the 1930s by legal genius Charles Hamilton Houston, then-Dean of Howard Law School, and brilliantly orchestrated in a series of cases over the next two decades by his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s first Director-Counsel.
In its unanimous ruling on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 and invalidated Plessy’s doctrine of “separate but equal.” Brown was the catalyst for the eventual integration of almost all avenues of American public life, including public schools, public transportation, housing, swimming pools, hospitals, golf courses and other venues. However, the ruling met with massive opposition. A year after the decision, LDF litigated Brown II, in which the Court ordered desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” However, 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 mandated that segregation be dismantled “root and branch.”
Brown v. Board was the consolidation of five separate cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of segregation in public schools, all of them sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Part of the strategy introduced by Houston and Marshall involved using social science research and expert witness testimony to prove that state-enforced racial desegregation in education negatively impacted Black children. The social science research included psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s now famous “Doll Test,” which demonstrated the negative impact of racial segregation on the self-esteem of Black children. The Court referenced the Clarks’ research in its opinion, noting that, for African-American children, racial segregation“ generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community and may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone . . . A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”
In issuing the Supreme Court’s decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Today education is the most important function of state and local governments . . . . It is the very foundation of good citizenship . . . . Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
However, more than six decades after Brown opened the door to increased educational opportunities, significant challenges remain. All over the country, LDF continues to fight to secure access to quality educational opportunities for all children and is currently litigating over 100 ongoing school desegregation cases to ensure that states fulfill the promise of Brown. This is part of LDF’s ongoing work to challenge racial discrimination at all levels of education, including K-12 and higher education, and to advocate for policies and legislation that ensure inclusive and quality educational opportunities. LDF works to eliminate obstacles and barriers to academic achievement for African-American students and to dismantle practices and policies that fuel the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time and a great equalizer in uplifting children, communities, and future generations to realize their full potential as citizens,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “We celebrate Brown for its historical significance, but more importantly, because it shows what our country can become when we promote inclusivity and equality for all Americans.”
Today, LDF continues its decades-long commitment to equal educational opportunities for all children. This includes promoting practices that ensure racial equity in education for African-American students and access to secure, safe, inclusive, and high quality education for all students.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is not a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. Since 1957, LDF has been a completely separate organization. Please refer to us in all media attributions as the Legal Defense Fund or LDF.