“Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does… Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group.”
So wrote the Supreme Court of the United States of America on today’s date, May 17, in 1954. This ruling, in the case of “Brown versus the Board of Education” written by the Chief Justice, Earl Warren was the beginning of the end of legalized racial segregation in schools in the United States of America. And with this ruling that the old system of “Separate but equal” violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14’th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a watershed moment was reached in the struggle for racial equality in the United States This occurred as the ruling began to be applied in other legal and political areas, and laws preserving racial segregation began to fall.
<Plessy -vs- Ferguson Legalizes Racial Segregation
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that Homer J. Plessy was not within his rights when refusing to sit in a “Colored only” section of the east Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana. In a decision that encoded racial segregation into law, the high Court, lead by Chief Justice Melville Fuller ruled 7 to 1, that Louisiana Judge John Ferguson had ruled correctly that the railroad company had a right to regulate it’s trains as it wished. And this meant that as long as it provided accommodations for it’s Black customers that were “separate but equal” to those offered to it’s white customers, it was acting within the law. This lead over the years to the legalized racial segregation of everything from lunch counters to drinking fountains to public transportation to schools.
Oliver Brown Challenges the System.
In 1951, Oliver Brown, a back man who was an Assistant Pastor at his local church attempted to enroll his daughter, Linda (right) in Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. Sumner had been an all-white school. He wished to do this not only because Sumner was a better school than Monroe Elementary – an “All-colored” school where Linda would normally have gone – but because it was closer.. a mere six blocks from her home as opposed to Monroe, which was a bus ride of several miles. Linda Brown Thompson later recalled her impressions of this event:
” We lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out . . . to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn’t understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.”
The Supreme Court Hears “Brown versus the Board of Education”
This brought about a law suit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to overturn the Plessy -vs- Ferguson decision. In his suit, which consolidated several such suits being filed around the country, Brown’s NAACP appointed lawyers lead by Thurgood Marshall (pictured center, above), who would himself be appointed to the high Court in 1967, argued that Topeka’s Black and White schools were not equal to each other and never could be. Therefore, they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14’th Amendment, thus making them and the entire “separate, but equal” regime unconstitutional. And as stated at the top of this posting, the court agreed. In their decision, the court further said:
“A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”