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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS (25730 hits)






Brown v. Board of Education

Background and Summary

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., of 1954 is the landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court, which overturned earlier rulings going back to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, by declaring state laws that established separate public schools for Black and White students denied minorities of equal educational opportunities. Handed down on May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Warren’s Court came to the unanimous decision of 9-0 and stated, in no uncertain terms, that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This victory paved the way for integration and furthered the causes of the Civil Rights Movement.

For much of the 90 years preceding the Brown case, civil activity and unity in the U.S. had been overshadowed by racial segregation. The “separate but equal” policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the U.S. Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were "equal," segregation did not violate the 14th  Amendment.

The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but relatively equal treatment of both White and Black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services and treatment for Blacks. They argued that the doctrine made the subordination of certain races permissible. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 that prohibited it. Brown was influenced by United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's 1950 statements signed by a wide variety of internationally-renowned scholars, titled “The Race Question. This report denounced previous attempts at scientifically justifying racism, as well as morally condemning racism. Another work that the Supreme Court cited in its decision was Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy from 1944. Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration.

How Brown Began

Brown is undoubtedly the most famous in a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that dealt principally with the efforts of civil rights activists to promote the interests of all American people.

In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kan., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were 13 Topeka parents on behalf of their 20 children. The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by the Topeka Board of Education under a 1879 Kansas law that permitted, but did not require, districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for White students and students of color in 12 different communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been recruited by the leadership of the Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Notable among the Topeka NAACP leaders were the chair McKinley Burnett, Lucinda Todd and Charles Scott, one of three serving as legal counsel for the chapter.

The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church and a Black man. Brown had initially contacted Topeka attorney William Everett Glenn about his concerns regarding "separate but equal" policies of Topeka schools. Glenn referred Brown to the local Topeka NAACP chapter. He was convinced by Scott,  a childhood friend of Brown’s, to join the lawsuit. Brown's third-grade daughter, Linda, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to go to her segregated Black school one mile away, Monroe Elementary, while Sumner Elementary, a school for White students, was only seven blocks from her house. Brown wished he could send her to Sumner, the closer school.

As directed by the NAACP leaders, the parents each attempted to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools.

The Brown case, "Oliver Brown et al v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.," was named after Brown as part of their legal strategy that was to have a man whose names was at the beginning of the alphabet. Also, lawyers felt that with the national chapter of the NAACP having Brown at the head of the roster, it would be rapidly received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. And that because Brown had an intact and complete family, as opposed to someone who was from a single parent household, the case would be better received that way, too. The 13 plaintiffs were: Oliver Brown, Darlene Brown, Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emerson, Shirley Fleming, Zelma Henderson, Shirley Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson and Lucinda Todd.

Awaiting the Outcome

First, the District Court ruled in favor of the Topeka Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had upheld a state law requiring "separate but equal" segregated facilities for Blacks and Whites in public accommodations and transportation. The three-judge District Court found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect upon Negro children, but denied relief on the grounds that the Black and White schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curriculum and educational qualifications of teachers.

The case of Brown v. Board of Education heard before the Supreme Court combined five cases: Brown, Briggs v. Elliott filed in South Carolina, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County filed in Virginia, Gebhart v. Belton filed in Delaware and, finally, Bolling v. Sharpe filed in Washington, D.C. All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Davis case, the only case of the five originating from a student protest, began when 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns organized and led a 450 student walkout due to segregation at Moton High School. The Brown case was unique among the group in that there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools' physical appearance, curriculum or staff. The District Court found substantial equality as to all such factors. The Gebhart case was unique in that the District Court judge ordered that the Black students be admitted to the White high school due to the substantial harm of segregation and the differences that made the schools separate but not equal. The NAACP's chief counsel at the time was Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, and he argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs. Assistant attorney general Paul Wilson conducted the state's ambivalent defense in his first appellate trial.

Interestingly, Topeka middle schools had been integrated since 1941. Topeka High School was integrated from its inception back in the late 1800s. The Kansas law permitting segregated schools allowed segregation rules only "below the high school level."

Soon after the Kansas District Court decision, the political climate in Topeka changed. The Board of Education of Topeka began to end segregation in the elementary schools starting in August of 1953, by integrating two attendance districts. All the Topeka elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers in January of 1956, although existing students were allowed to continue attending their prior assigned schools at their option. The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor of Burnett, the NAACP chapter president who organized the case. Monroe Elementary was designated a U.S. National Historic Site under the National Park Service on October 26, 1992.

The 1954 decision also reversed the precedent set by the Court's previous decision in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, of 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 public accommodations, such as restaurants or bathrooms, that were owned by private parties. Those could not be accomplished until the passage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. However, it was a giant step forward for the Civil Rights Movement placing the weight of the federal judiciary squarely behind the forces of desegregation.

Brown’s Impact

Brown is often referred to as Brown I, because the following year, in 1955, the Court completed its ruling. In this second Brown decision, Brown II, the Court, under Chief Justice Warren, ordered the states' compliance with Brown I "with all deliberate speed." Brown II was argued by Robert L. Carter, who had earlier initiated some of the cases consolidated at the Supreme Court into Brown I. Even so, formal compliance with the provisions of these two cases was not expedited, and in the South, most public schools would not be desegregated until about 1970 under the Nixon administration. Nearly 20 years after Brown, school desegregation came to the court's attention again in two cases involving the use of busing to integrate students across school district lines: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, of 1971 and Milliken v. Bradley, of 1974.

Not everyone accepted the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. organized the Massive Resistance Movement that included the closing of schools rather than desegregating them. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out his state's National Guard to block Black students' entry to Little Rock High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by deploying elements of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., to Arkansas to protect the Black students by federalizing Faubus' National Guard.

Also, in 1957, Florida's response was mixed. Its legislature passed an Interposition Resolution denouncing the decision and declaring it null and void. But Florida Governor Thomas LeRoy Collins refused to sign it and argued the state must follow the Supreme Court's ruling. Tourism, and Florida's popular image, probably played a role in its muted response.

In 1963, Alabama Govenor George Wallace personally and literally blocked the door to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two Black students. This became the infamous "Stand at the Schoolhouse Door." Wallace declared "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." He moved aside only when confronted by federal marshals and the Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

Justice William Rehnquist wrote a memo titled "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases" back in 1952 when he was a law clerk for Justice Robert H. Jackson, during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In his memo, Rehnquist argued that the decision set in Plessy should have remained intact. Rehnquist also argued for Plessy with other law clerks. Later, at his 1986 hearings for the slot of Chief Justice, Rehnquist put further distance between himself and the 1952 memo: "The bald statement that Plessy was right and should be reaffirmed, was not an accurate reflection of my own views at the time." In any event, while serving on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist made no effort to reverse or undermine the Brown decision, and frequently relied upon it as precedent. Some aspects of the Brown decision are still debated. Notably, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a Black man, wrote in Missouri v. Jenkins in 1995 that at the very least, Brown I had been misunderstood by the courts.

Some Constitutional originalists, notably Raoul Berger, in his influential 1977 book, Government by Judiciary, makes the case that Brown cannot be defended by reference to the original understanding of the 14th Amendment. They support this reading of the 14th Amendment by noting that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not ban segregated schools. But other originalists, including, Michael W. McConnell, a federal judge on the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in his article, "Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions," argues that the Radical Reconstructionists who spearheaded the 14th Amendment were in favor of desegregated Southern schools.

The case has also attracted some criticism from more liberal authors, including some who say that Chief Justice Warren's reliance on psychological criteria to find harm against segregated Blacks was unnecessary. However, public officials in the U.S. today are nearly unanimous in lauding Brown’s ruling. In May of 004, the 50th anniversary of the ruling, President George W. Bush spoke at the opening of the "Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site," and he called Brown "a decision that changed America for the better, and forever." Most senators and representatives issued press releases hailing the ruling.

Criticisms of the Case

In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In Brown II, the Court delegated the task of carrying out the desegregation to district courts with orders that desegregation occur "with all deliberate speed," a phrase traceable to Francis Thompson's poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” Some supporters of the earlier decision were displeased with this decision. The language “all deliberate speed” was seen by critics as too ambiguous to ensure reasonable haste for compliance with the court's instruction.

In 1978, Topeka attorneys Richard Jones, Joseph Johnson and Charles Scott Jr., with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, persuaded Linda Brown Smith—who now had her own children in Topeka schools—to be a plaintiff in reopening Brown. They were concerned that the Topeka Public Schools' policy of "open enrollment" had led to and would lead to further segregation. They also believed that with a choice of open enrollment, White parents would shift their children to "preferred" schools in places like the suburbs that would create both predominantly Black and predominantly White schools within the district. The District Court reopened the Brown case after a 25-year hiatus, but denied the plaintiffs' request after finding the schools "unitary." In 1989, a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on a 2-1 vote found that the vestiges of segregation remained with respect to student and staff assignment. In 1993, the Supreme Court denied the appellant School District's request for certiorari and returned the case to District Court Judge Richard Rodgers for implementation of the Tenth Circuit's mandate. After a 1994 plan was approved and a bond issue passed, additional elementary magnet schools were opened and district attendance plans were redrawn, which resulted in the Topeka schools meeting court standards of racial balance by 1998. Unified status was eventually granted to Topeka Unified School District #501 on July 27, 1999. One of the new magnet schools is named after the Scott attorneys for their role in the Brown case and civil rights.

 The most common misconception about Brown v. Board of Education is that the case is solely about Linda and whether she should or should not be able to attend the school nearest her home. In fact, Brown was a consolidation of five different cases, from four states, all of which dealt with the same issue. Linda was merely the "poster child," as it were, for some 200 plaintiffs altogether. A dozen attorneys and countless community activists were involved in efforts to eliminate de jure racial segregation in the public schools. The second most common misconception is that the case talks about the hardship that affected Linda because she was not able to attend her local school, because it was for White children only. In fact, the case discusses the hardships collectively faced by all of the children involved. It also focuses attention on the psychological well-being of the children in reference to segregation. It is also frequently thought that Oliver Brown was the first to legally challenge racially segregated schools in the United States. In fact, it was the 11th case to challenge the 1879 Kansas law, and the third case from Topeka.

Important Related Cases:


Sources:; Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality; New York: Vintage Books, 1977; Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education New York: W.W. Norton, 2004; James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, Oxford University Press, 2001; Gunnar Myrdal, “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” UNESCO, The Race Question, 1950; Missouri v. Jenkins, 1995; Thomas, J., What 'Brown v. Board of Education' Should Have Said, Jack Balkin,” page 97 New York University Press, 2001; Topeka Public Schools Desegregation History: "The Naming of Scott Computer Technology Magnet,"; What Was Brown v. Board of Education?, Library of Virginia; Adam Liptak,” The Memo That Rehnquist Wrote and Had to Disown,” The New York Times, September 11, 2005; The American Experience; George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire; Wallace Quotes, Public Broadcasting System,, 2000; William Rehnquist, "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases," Hearings Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on the Nomination of Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist to be Chief Justice of the United States (July 29, 30, 31, and August 1, 1986); Harald E.L. Prins, “Toward a World without Evil: Alfred Métraux as UNESCO Anthropologist (1946-1962),” UNESCO; Anderson, “Legacy of Brown: Many people part of local case, Thirteen parents representing 20 children signed up as Topeka plaintiffs,” The Topeka Capital-Journal May 9, 2004; Black, White, and Brown, PBS NewsHour, May 12, 2004;  Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, Myths Versus Truths, April 11, 2004; Ric Anderson, “Legacy of Brown: Many people part of local case, Thirteen parents representing 20 children signed up as Topeka plaintiffs,” The Topeka Capital-Journal, May 9, 2004; “School facilities for Negroes here held comparable,” The Topeka State Journal, August 3, 1951; Brown v. Board of Education, 98 F. Supp. 797 (August 3, 1951; “Racial bar down for teachers here,” Topeka Daily Capital, January 19, 1956; “First step taken to end segregation,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 9, 1953; “Little Effect On Topeka,” Topeka Capital-Journal, May 18, 1954; Erin Adamson, “Breaking barriers: Topekans reflect on role in desegregating nation's schools,” Topeka Capital Journal, May 11, 2003;


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Wednesday, December 19th 2007 at 5:53PM
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