Since the end of the nineteenth century, governments at all levels had supported or accepted the legal justification for segregation, but the Brown decision discredited this. It catalyzed the civil rights movement and opened the way to desegregate housing, public accommodations, and higher education institutions.
It Changed the Landscape of Education
The nation’s schools were segregated, underfunded, overcrowded, and lacked modern educational materials. Many were a poor fit for the African-American students who attended them. This racial imbalance was exacerbated by the effects of white flight from urban areas, which made it even harder for schools to integrate.
The NAACP’s attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, pushed for reform. They developed a strategy to challenge state-sanctioned segregation in the courts directly. They consolidated several lawsuits into the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case. Using this tactic, the plaintiffs argued that segregated facilities were unequal, violating the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Charles Houston, the NAACP’s chief counsel from 1934 to 1938, led the legal fight against segregation. But he and other civil rights activists shifted tactics after World War II. Emboldened by their victories in higher education, they focused on school integration cases. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown that segregated schools were unconstitutional.
The decision cracked the load-bearing wall of legal segregation and set in motion events that would change the landscape of 20th-century America. For African Americans, Brown was a rebuke of the cultural smear that had long held them to be inherently inferior. It was, as lawyer-journalist Roger Wilkins framed it, “a second Emancipation Day.” But actual school desegregation remained elusive.
It Changed the Landscape of Politics
After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, civil rights activists quickly geared up to fight for equality. The NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall and fueled by the success of civil rights leader Rosa Parks’ bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, had decided to make education an integral part of a more significant movement to eliminate all traces of discrimination from American society.
The NAACP took the first steps to dismantle segregation by bringing several cases into federal courts against schools that maintained separate facilities for white and black children. Each case alleged that laws requiring or sanctioning such segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Ethel Belton, whose daughter had to board a bus for an hour each morning to go to her assigned African-American school, and Sarah Bulah, whose daughters had no choice but to travel long distances to a white public school with inadequate facilities, both hired NAACP lawyers to represent them in Court.
In the early 1950s, a series of five public school segregation cases involving black and white children went to the Supreme Court. The justices consolidated them into Brown v. Board of Education, and it is in this context that the ruling was made.
The other cases were Briggs v. Elliott (1952), in Mississippi; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952), in Virginia; Gebhart v. Belton (1952), in Delaware; and Bolling v. Sharp (1954), in Washington, DC.
It Changed the Landscape of Law
The Brown decision is the defining moment in the storied history of the NAACP and its legal arm, the LDF. However, Brown was only the first of many victories in this tumultuous struggle to dismantle legal segregation in America.
The Supreme Court consolidated four separate school segregation cases to decide Brown, with the lead case being from Topeka, Kansas, where a black father and welder named Oliver Brown was seeking justice. The other cases were from Missouri, South Carolina, Delaware, and Virginia.
The Court chose to consolidate these five cases because focusing on one state would have introduced political complications into the case. It was essential to Marshall and his team that the case be nationally representative, thereby creating a stronger argument for ending segregation across the country.
When the Court decided Brown, it struck down the concept that state-required segregation based on unchangeable characteristics such as race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
However, the decision did not require that schools desegregate. Many states ignored the ruling, while others slowed down their efforts to integrate schools in the face of violent and deadly “massive resistance” from white supremacist groups and government officials such as Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.
This backlash against the Brown decision was a direct result of the fact that it did not explicitly tell schools to desegregate or that segregation was unconstitutional. While the Supreme Court found segregation unconstitutional, it took several more court cases before the nation began desegregating its public schools.
It Changed the Landscape of Society
As the Supreme Court reaffirmed in Brown, the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” forbids state-enforced segregation based on unchangeable characteristics, including race. The decision unleashed a wave of legal challenges that led to dismantling of school segregation in America.
The movement to end segregation in education started in the 1930s when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established a law firm called the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to handle its legal activities. The attorneys, Thurgood Marshall and Stanley Herr, focused on litigation. They argued that Plessy and its progeny violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and that segregation based on race denied black students access to educational opportunities.
Their efforts to overturn segregation in schools involved a series of lawsuits consolidated into one case, Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. The case began with a simple act of civil disobedience in Topeka, Kansas, by 13 African American parents who, with the guidance of NAACP attorneys, attempted to enroll their children in white schools for the first time.
Their experience and the resulting Supreme Court ruling clarified that the legal challenge to school segregation was vital to the modern civil rights movement. Unfortunately, a half-century after Brown, many public schools faced the same educational injustices prosecuted in the case.
Pervasive racial disparities in academic achievement and school resources, coupled with resegregation based on socioeconomic status, undermine the promise of Brown. Meanwhile, polarizing political rhetoric that criminalizes and pathologizes African Americans diverts attention from the urgent work of addressing educational inequality.