Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) was a landmark case in the Supreme Court in which the justices ruled unanimously that the segregation of public schools, and state laws to support segregation, were unconstitutional. The case is one of the major foundations of the American civil rights movement and an important moment in the history of public education in the United States.

Events Leading to Brown vs. Board of Education

Brown v. Board exhibit at Moton MuseumIn 1896, the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson ruled that public facilities could be separate for blacks and whites as long as they were “separate but equal.” The ruling sanctioned so-called “Jim Crow” laws that made it clear that blacks and whites could indeed have access to separate facilities, including public transportation, public schools, and more.

The NAACP had long held a strategy of working locally to file lawsuits against unequal school facilities for black children. In 1951, here in Prince Edward County, Barbara Rose Johns led a student protest against the poor condition of the facilities and inadequate learning resources at Moton High School. Later that year, protests in North Carolina and other places also led to lawsuits, which eventually became the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Case.

Brown vs. Board of Education

The case that eventually ended segregation in American public schools was Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Brown claimed that in 1951, his daughter, Linda, was denied access to a white elementary school in Topeka.

Brown’s case claimed that the facilities for black children were unequal to those of whites, which violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the constitution. The case went to the state court of Kansas. Although the Kansas court agreed that schools for black children were inferior to those of whites, it upheld Plessy vs. Ferguson. Eventually, the case went to the Supreme Court.

A Landmark Ruling for the Civil Rights Movement

Five cases in total went to the Supreme Court regarding school desegregation starting in 1952. The court eventually rolled them into one entitled Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Marshall eventually became the first black Supreme Court Justice under Lyndon B. Johnson.

The justices were divided on whether or not Plessy vs. Ferguson should stand. However, with the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson in 1953 and the appointment of  Earl Warren to replace him, the vote shifted, and a unanimous verdict was reached to overturn school segregation.

The final ruling was released on May 17, 1954. Although the decision agreed that schools should be integrated, it gave no specifics on how this should be done. Later, a second ruling pushed desegregation cases back to the lower courts, which led to loopholes exploited by local governments to continue segregation. The fight for equal access to schools continued well into the 1960s and beyond, with a continued push for equal access to educational resources for black and white children.