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Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, Kansas) 347 US 483 (1954) is a landmark case of the United States Supreme Court which explicitly outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites, ruling so on the grounds that the doctrine of "separate but equal" public education could never truly provide black Americans with facilities of the same standards available to white Americans. There is a 'companion' case dealing with the same issues in the District of Columbia, Bolling v. Sharpe 347 US 497 (1954)*.


For much of the 90 years preceding 1954, race relations in the United States had been dominated by segregation, a system of racial separation which, while in name providing for separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, in truth perpetuated inferior accommodation, services, and treatment for black Americans.

Brown is undoubtedly the most famous of a group of U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Powell v. Alabama 287 US 45 (1932)*, Chambers v. Florida 309 US 227 (1940)*, Smith v. Allwright 321 US 649 (1944)*, Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 (1948)*, Sweatt v. Painter 339 US 629 (1950)*, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents 339 US 637 (1950)*, NAACP v. Alabama 357 US 449 (1958)*, Boynton v. Virginia 364 US 454 (1960)* and Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 US 241 (1964)*, which principally deal with the struggle of black Americans to recover the rights of citizenship expressly given to them by the Constitution of the United States.

The Case

In 1951, a suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on behalf of Linda Brown, a third grader from Topeka, Kansas who was forced to walk a mile to her segregated black school, while a white school was only seven blocks from her house. Brown's suit had the backing of the NAACP, whose chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall--himself appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967--argued the case. The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896)*, which allowed state laws requiring "separate but equal" facilities in railway cars for blacks and whites.

The Decision

The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On 17 May 1954 the Warren Court handed down a unanimous 9-0 decision which stated, in no uncertain terms, that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The 17 May 1954 decision reversed the Court's previous decision in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899)*, which had specifically validated the segregation of public schools. Brown did not , however, result in the immediate desegregation of America's public schools, nor did it mandate desegregation of other public facilities, such as restaurants or bathrooms, which would not be accomplished until the formal overturning of Plessy by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it was a giant step forwards for the US civil rights movement, placing the weight of the Federal Judiciary squarely behind the forces of desegregation.

Brown is often referred to as Brown I, because the following year, 1955, the Court completed its ruling. In this second Brown decision, "Brown II," the Warren Court ordered the states' compliance with Brown I "with all deliberate speed." Even so, formal compliance with the provisions of these two cases was not expedient, and in the South most public schools would not be integrated until about 1970 under the Nixon administration. Nearly twenty years after Brown school integration would come to the court's attention again in two cases involving the use of busing to integrate students across school districts: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education 402 US 1 (1971)* and Milliken v. Bradley 418 US 717 (1974)*.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." [1]

See also: * Click here to understand what those numbers mean