1954 May 17

“Separate but Equal” Unconstitutional: “Brown v. Board of Education” is Decided


Brown v. Board of Education, decided on this day, is one of the most important decisions by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century. The Court unanimously declared racially segregated schools an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal.” (For the Plessy case, see June 7, 1892; May 18, 1896.) Chief Justice Earl Warren is credited with working to achieve the unanimous opinion.

The case was also the crowning achievement of Thurgood Marshall, who brought the case as the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (see October 11, 1939). Marshall himself would join the Supreme Court on October 2, 1967 as the first African-American justice in the history of the court.

The decision gave a powerful boost to the civil rights movement, since Congress was effectively controlled by Southern segregationists who held key leadership positions and would not pass federal civil rights legislation. Brown, however, also provoked aggressive resistance among Southern segregationists, including the release of the “Southern Manifesto” on March 12, 1956, a pledge by 100 Southern members of Congress to fight school desegregation. Alabama (see June 30, 1958) and Virginia (see April 2, 1963) passed laws seeking to restrict the ability of the NAACP from operating in their states, but these laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The Court: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Visit the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topekahttp://www.nps.gov/brvb/index.htm

Read about the decision and its background: Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (2004)

Learn more at the NAACP LDF timeline on Brown: http://www.naacpldf.org/brown-at-60-learn#timeline

And a slideshow on the history of Brown: http://www.naacpldf.org/brown-at-60-watch#slideshow

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