Diversity & Inclusion Spotlight: The Landmark Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board of Education

Contributed By: Natia Daviti, Corporate Counsel

To continue Tapad’s celebration of Black History Month, Natia Daviti, Corporate Counsel at Tapad, volunteered to provide insight into the landmark Supreme Court decision that helped strengthen the foundation for civil rights in the United States-- Brown v Board of Education.

Linda Brown and Mother After The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education Ruling

In the momentous case of Brown v Board of Education, which was deliberated between 1952-1954, The Supreme Court mandated the racial integration of public schools. In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to take a look back in recognizing the importance of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case. In fact, many legal scholars consider this case to be as the single most significant court decision of the past century, as no other has had as deep an impact on the fabric of American society, nor impacted progress toward racial equality to the same degree.

Historical and Legal Background Leading Up to Brown

In 1896, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Plessy v Ferguson which provided the legal basis for segregation. Plessy upheld the constitutionality of a law that required separate public facilities based on race as long as each were “equal in quality.” In Plessy, a black railway passenger was arrested for sitting in a whites-only train car and was convicted for violating Louisiana’s “Separate Car Act”. From the time of this decision until the Brown Court reversed its holding, the segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal” all but directed race relations in American society.

Nevertheless, before the Brown decision in 1954, the nation did slowly take some small but critical steps to unite the country’s racially divided society. In the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practice Committee banning discriminatory employment practices by federal agencies, unions, and private companies involved with war-related business. In 1947, Jackie Robinson, baseball legend and son of a sharecropper, donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform for the first time, forever transforming America’s favorite pastime into a powerful signal of the promises of equality and integration. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that unified the armed forces by requiring equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.

From a jurisprudence standpoint, the Supreme Court started hearing cases that circled around the issue but did not outright challenge the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” legal doctrine established by Plessy. The Court began cutting down laws that were intrinsically racist in concept and application as various segregated facilities were easily proven to be “demonstrably unequal.“ The Court ordered the law schools at the University of Missouri and the University of Texas to be integrated in 1938’s Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, and 1950’s Sweatt v. Painter. Neither case had the combative strength needed to overturn the inherently discriminatory Plessy standard. However, the rulings opened the door to a new wave of challenges, brought by the NAACP and other non-profit organizations, against the doctrine of segregation with the greatest victory for equality stemming from the challenge brought in Brown v Board of Education, which ultimately overruled Plessy.

Underlying Facts and Legal Arguments of Brown v Board of Education

Eight year old Linda Brown had been denied permission to attend an all-white elementary school located five blocks from her home in Topeka, Kansas. School officials refused to register her, assigning her instead to a school for non-white students over twenty blocks away. Linda’s parents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Topeka’s Board of Education decision to deny her admission to her local school. The central question addressed to the Court involved the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and posed the issue of whether the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race works to deprive children of equal opportunities as required by the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, then a leading attorney for the NAACP (and later appointed to the Supreme Court himself) represented the Brown family. His legal team argued that the mere existence of schools separated by race was damaging to black children as it resulted in both fundamentally unequal education quality and low self-esteem among minority students. Further, they keyed in on the argument that segregation by law essentially implies that black Americans were inherently inferior to white Americans. Attorneys for the Board of Education of Topeka countered that the public schools for non-white students were substantially equal to those of the white schools and complied with the Plessy standard in every way from the existence of physical buildings, to the range of courses for students to study and the quality of the schools’ instructors. They stated that because of these “separate but equal” features of the non-white schools any discrimination by race could not possibly harm children.

Attorneys for Brown v. Board of Education, including Thurgood Marshall

Brown’s Holding and Its Revolutionary Impact

The Court’s Chief Justice Warren penned the unanimous 9-0 decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools. His sharp holding stated that separation of students is a denial of the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Accepting the arguments put forward by the Plaintiff’s attorneys, Warren announced that “to separate some children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The effect, the Court stated, is greater when it has the sanction of the law and can lessen the motivation of a child to learn, as such segregation can slow the educational and mental development of children and deprive them of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system. In rejecting the Board of Education’s flawed arguments and ruling in favor of the plaintiff, the Court stated that, in the area of public education, the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place.

First day of desegregation at Fort Myer Elementary School in Fort Myer, VA on Sept. 8, 1954. Bettmann/Corbis

The Brown decision is seen as a transforming event that gave rise to a political and social revolution. The decision helped overhaul long accepted prejudicial and intolerant behavior in America’s education system. In a later case called Brown II (decided in 1955), the Court dealt with the implementation and application of the Brown I decision to overturn Plessy, wherein the Justices expressly directed the end to school segregation by race “with all deliberate speed.”

The Brown decisions provided the constitutional framework which helped give birth to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and brought topics of social justice and reform to the forefront of the national conversation. Just a year after Brown, Rosa Parks famously declined to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama public bus. Her arrest for this courageous move sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and would lead to other peaceful demonstrations to combat discriminatory laws and practices. In addition, the civil rights movement fortified by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his peers collapsed the racist Jim Crow laws that were rampant across the Southern states. With the passage of subsequent legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the road toward racial equality and societal integration was further cemented. In 1976, the Supreme Court issued another landmark decision Runyon v. McCrary, ruling that private schools that routinely denied admission to students on the basis of race violated federal civil rights laws.