May 17 marks the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most famously known for its role in declaring segregated education unconstitutional. It is widely recognized as one of the most consequential decisions of the modern Supreme Court. But Brown is less recognized today for its role in transforming the American legal system.
It has perhaps been forgotten that prior to Brown, white supremacy was a central feature of the American legal system. The legal profession itself was a primary abettor of Jim Crow. It promoted, maintained, and defended segregated law schools. It was not until the Supreme Court’s 1950 decision in Sweatt v. Painter that southern law schools began admitting Blacks.
The indignities faced by Black lawyers practicing in southern courts in the decades before Brown were both big and small. In the middle of the 20th century, Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers bringing incredibly consequential civil rights cases could not even eat in the cafeteria in many of the federal courthouses where they brilliantly argued. Famished at the end of the first day of trial in his ultimately successful 1947 challenge to the exclusion of Black applicants from the University of Oklahoma Law School, Marshall told his client, Ada Sipuel, “tomorrow I’ll try the case, and you bring the bologna sandwiches.”
Read the full op-ed here.