One of the most influential cases ever decided by the United States Supreme Court was the ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954). This landmark case not only set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement in America; it also had a ripple effect on the American educational system, which has lasted until the present day. The reasons for the case were simple enough, Brown, an African American father in the city of Topeka Kansas, wanted to enroll his daughter in an all-white school which was closer to his home and less dangerous to get to than the all-black school that she had been attending. To get to her school, she and her sister had to cross an active railroad yard and then walk another 2 miles before they arrived at school. When the school board refused Brown admittance, he brought the case to the court system for resolution.
Brown was heard before the Supreme Court as an amalgamation of cases filed in the states of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. In each case, an African American child had been refused entry into a traditionally all-white school. The basis of the case under examination in Brown was that in denying the students access to white schools in their respective districts, violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had occurred. In each case, the plaintiffs had been denied the right to attend a predominantly white school either by the power of established laws that enforced segregation or by policies that otherwise excluded African Americans from attending public school with whites. The reason for these rulings in state courts was based on the 1896 decision by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the standard of “separate but equal” within the United States.
In deciding how to rule, the Court examined all of the details of the plaintiffs’ cases as well as all of the specifics of how, why, and for what purpose the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment thought it was necessary to add a provision to the U.S. Constitution for explicitly guaranteeing every citizen equal protection of the laws. The Brown case was initially heard to establish the legal basis for the case and whether the plaintiffs possessed standing to bring the case before the Supreme Court. The second round of arguments then proceeded regarding the issues stated at the beginning of this paragraph. To get a thorough understanding of the circumstances surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the Court heard arguments about “consideration of the Amendment in Congress, ratification by the states, then existing practices in racial segregation, and the views of proponents and opponents of the Amendment.” By studying this information, the justices were able to get a broad understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, the circumstances surrounding its establishment, and the legal obstacles that had been put into place by the ruling in Plessy. The final ruling overturned Plessy and ordered that U.S. schools be desegregated with “all deliberate speed.”
This decision by the Supreme Court shocked several sectors of the American population, including those living in the Southern states. One of the most tragic events that occurred in the direct aftermath of the decision in Brown involved an African American teen named Emmett Till. The Chicago-born Till was not accustomed to the restrictions placed on blacks in the Jim Crow South and was sort of like a fish out of water when he went to visit his cousins in Mississippi in the summer of 1954. Till openly bragged to his cousins and others that he had had sex with white women in Chicago and it was alleged that he had whistled at a white woman in a store which turned out to be the store owner's wife. Till was abducted from his great-Uncle Moses Wright’s house that evening, was brutally beaten, shot, and was thrown into the Tallahatchie River where he was discovered three days later. The case drew national attention when Till’s mother had his body returned to Chicago where an open casket revealed to America the brutality that had been unleashed upon this teenager.
Although the case of Till, and others in the wake of the Brown decision in 1954, would never be tied directly to the case, the mere occurrence of such brutal violence was enough to set the stage for a militant civil rights movement to form in the African American community. Also, the killing of Till and others exposed the ultimate weapons wielded by white supremacists in the South, intimidation, brutal violence, and murder, all under the watchful eye of a corrupt local law enforcement establishment and an equally corrupt judicial system. According to Patterson, the violence against blacks in the South escalated significantly in the years following the Brown decision. Patterson further noted that “between 1954 and 1959 there were 210 recorded acts of white violence against black people in the South, including six murders, twenty-nine assaults with firearms, forty-four beatings, and sixty bombings. This increase in violent activity just coincidentally coincided with the aftermath of the Brown decision, if one believes what white supremacists in the Southern U.S. were saying at the time.
Amid the rise in violence, there were many victories recorded due to the decision in Brown. For example, in the case of Griffin v. Prince Edward County School Board (1964) 377 U.S. 218, facing a Court order to desegregate, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors decided in 1959 to refuse to appropriate funds for the operation of the public schools within its jurisdiction, although private funds were made available to open private whites-only schools in the county. The next year, these private schools became eligible for county and state education tuition grants. This action led to filings with the U.S. District Court, which resulted in the Court ruling that these grants were not to be distributed to private institutions while public schools in the county remained closed. The District Court also ruled that the county could not keep public schools closed simply to avoid abiding by the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown case. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision stating that the District Court should have waited for the state courts to rule before rendering its decision on the legality of keeping the public schools closed.
Elsewhere in Virginia, the New Kent County school board near Richmond, which operated the two schools in the county, had been notified that the Virginia Constitution’s mandate for segregation in public schools was rendered unconstitutional by the decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. However, the county took no action to desegregate the two schools under its jurisdiction, continuing to use stalling tactics for as long as possible. In 1965, the case of Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430 (1968), began to work its way through the Virginia state courts finally making its way to the Supreme Court. Because of this situation, and the desire by New Kent County to maintain eligibility for federal education grants, the school board came up with a plan that they called the “freedom-of-choice” plan for desegregating the county’s two schools. However, like other moves by local and state governments in the South, this plan was just a ruse to give the appearance that they were complying with the law when in reality they were not, which is how the Supreme Court ruled on this matter.
A pivotal case in the march toward school desegregation was Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education 396 U.S. 19 (1969). Even though the justices found in favor of delaying a change from the standard of “all deliberate speed” set up by the Brown case, to a standard of immediate and permanent desegregation of all public schools, to allow more time for 33 Mississippi school districts to formulate plans for desegregation. Later decisions by the court would push for the immediate standard in desegregating those school districts who had had over 15 years as of the time of this case to formulate plans. For this case, the Court made it clear that justice delayed is justice denied.
The next case which would have an impact in the aftermath of the Brown decision was the case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education 402 U.S. 1 (1971). This case initially tried in the state of South Carolina, became the landmark case for authorized busing of African American children into white districts to force desegregation into areas where the governments had been reticent in implementing the provisions of Brown II. The federal government realized with this case that desegregation would have to be enforced for it to be effective in the districts where implementation had been lacking since 1955.
Two cases which shaped the periphery of the ruling in Brown were cases tried in Colorado and California in 1973 and 1978, respectively. In the case of Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colo. 413 U.S. 921 (1973), the first case of desegregation which did not involve a Southern state was tried. This case is also noteworthy because it established another basis on which desegregation was to be enforced; that basis being that if private decisions of citizens caused segregation, then the ruling in Brown would not apply. Also, in the case of the University of California Regents v. Bakke 438 U.S. 265 (1978), the first case alleging reverse discrimination based on affirmative action plans set up by colleges to help out minority based solely on race was brought before federal courts. Bakke contended that allowing minorities to get a free pass into medical school without having to compete against other students for the privilege was just as unconstitutional as segregation. However, Bakke did not prevail in this case because they failed to prove that they were harmed directly by the policy.
One last case having an impact derived from the Brown case was United States v. Fordice, Governor of Mississippi 505 U.S. 717 (1992). In this case, the practice of the state of Mississippi maintaining separate institutions of higher learning, five predominantly white schools, and three exclusively black schools demonstrated that even almost 40 years after the decision in Brown, there were still remnants of separate but equal segregation alive and operating in the late 20th century. The outcome of this case found Governor Fordice of Mississippi guilty of “sustained racially discriminant features” and ordered that Mississippi enact “affirmative steps” to abolish the last remnants of segregation in its institutions of higher learning.
Even into the 21st century, scholars are still finding remnants of previous discrimination in education, not unlike the conditions which existed before the Brown case. In 2014, Moore and Lewis wrote in the Journal of Negro Education that even today minority students, especially African Americans are at a disadvantage compared to whites and others because of the historically poor living and educational condition offered to them in society. Impoverished schools in a racially segregated neighborhood in the inner city areas of many American metropolises continue to uphold the spirit of the legacy of separate but equal by failing to educate America’s minority population.
To sum up, the case of Brown v. Board of Education started a revolution in education and American society in general. It was responsible for bringing about the end of separate but equal, not just in education but in life in general in the Southern states which finally broke the back of the Jim Crow era and spawned the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Without the impetus provided by the decision in Brown, it is likely that racial tensions in the South and other places would have boiled over in the 1960s and caused chaos across the entire nation. Even though the Brown case paved the way for many changes, as noted in the later cases in this study, old habits and old institutions die hard and sometimes hang on for decades even in the face of a changing society. However, significant progress has been made, and now the issues facing American society revolve around how not to fall back into familiar patterns and erase the progress that has been made.
“Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education 396 U.S. 19 (1969).” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/396/1218.html.
This case came into being after President Nixon ordered a temporary hold on court orders forcing 33 school districts in Mississippi to come up with plans for segregation. The Supreme Court found that the standard of “all deliberate speed” as set out in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), was no longer “constitutionally permissible” and that plans for desegregation and operations of unitary school systems must be formulated “at once.” This case was influential in ending the feet dragging of some school districts that claimed they had been proceeding with “all deliberate speed” but were still segregated some ten years after the decision in Brown.
"Brown v. Board of Education." In American Constitutional Law: The Bill of Rights and Subsequent Amendments. 9th ed. Westview Press, 2013.
This document, excerpted from the book American Constitutional Law: The Bill of Rights and Subsequent Amendments. 9th ed. lists the original decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. This transcript is relevant to the ongoing study because it is the source document for the research and was a historical, or landmark decision in the history of the Court itself.
“Green v. County School Board 391 U.S. 430 (1968).” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/391/430.html.
This case, which originated in the state of Virginia, involved what was designated a “freedom of choice plan” by New Kent County, located just east of Richmond. Because the plan resulted in very little desegregation even though Brown had mandated that desegregation be carried out with “all deliberate speed,” the Supreme Court ruled that any plan which did not achieve the goal of desegregation should not be approved or put into force by any jurisdiction. This case is relevant to the ongoing study because it set the stage for later revision of the “all deliberate speed” standard set in Brown.
“Griffin v. Prince Edward County School Board (1964) 377 U.S. 218.” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/377/218.html.
This case involved the 1959 decision by the Prince Edward County School Board in Virginia to close all of its public schools rather than submit them to desegregation. Although Prince Edward County carried out this plan, all other schools in the state of Virginia had remained open. Also, the Prince Edward County School Board continued to support private white schools in the district. The result of this case was that the Board of Education for Prince Edward County was ordered to reopen all of its schools. This case is relevant to the ongoing study because it showed that the tactic of closing schools would not exempt them from desegregation.
“Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colo. (1973) 413 U.S. 921.” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/413/189.html.
Due to the filing of this case, Denver became the first non-southern city to have its policies on desegregation challenged in the Supreme Court. The result of this case was that the Court “all but ordered” Denver to begin mandatory busing of students to allow for desegregation of its public school. However, in the decision, a codicil was added to state that de facto segregation based on where people lived based on “uncoordinated” private decisions was not subject to the desegregation policy. This case is relevant to the topic at hand because it established another basis on which desegregation was to be enforced.
Moore, James L. III, and Chance W. Lewis. "60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education: Educational Advancement or Decline?" The Journal of Negro Education 83, no. 3 (2014): 191-93. doi:10.7709/jnegroeducation.83.3.0191.
This article by James Moore, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer of The Ohio State University, and Chance Lewis, Distinguished Professor of Urban Education, begins an investigation into the current state of affairs related to the segregated state of public schools in the U.S. in the 21st century. Moore and Lewis point out that minority students, especially African Americans, are still experiencing some of the effects left over from the era of separate but equal in the United States. Poor schools in racially segregated inner city areas are continuing the legacy of separate but equal by failing to educate America’s minority population. This article is relevant to the ongoing study because it gives a picture of the current state of affairs, sixty years after school desegregation was initially ordered.
Patterson, James T. Brown V. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
This book by James T. Patterson, author and Ford Foundation Professor of History at Brown University for 30 years, chronicles the lead up to Brown, including conditions in American schools before the decision, and nearly every aspect that occurred in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Brown. This book is relevant to the ongoing study because it gives a well-rounded historical look at the topic.
“Swann v. Board of Education (1971) 402 U.S. 1.” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/402/1.html.
This case, initially litigated in the state of South Carolina, was relevant to the impact that Brown had on the American educational landscape because of the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that a range of tools, including busing, was “appropriate to promote racial balance” in the plan to desegregation schools. The Court as part of its decision noted that “to eliminate from the public schools all vestiges of state-imposed segregation that was held violative of equal protection guarantees” was the goal of Brown and therefore was relevant to solving the problem.
“United States v. Fordice, Governor of Mississippi (1992) 505 U.S. 717.” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/505/717.html.
This case proved that the legacy of Brown had not been fully realized even almost 40 years after its institution. In 1992, Mississippi still maintained a system of segregated hierarchy in its institutions of higher learning, maintaining five predominantly white institutions and three mostly black schools. The Supreme Court ruled that this situation “sustained racially discriminant features” and ordered that the state of Mississippi take “affirmative steps” to do away with the system of segregation in its institutions of higher learning. This case is relevant to the study because it shows that even 40 years after Brown, some remnants of separate but equal remained in America’s education system.
“University of California Regents v. Bakke 438 U.S. 265 (1978).” FindLaw. (accessed June 5, 2019). https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/438/265.html.
This California case had brought into question one of the remedies formulated in the wake of Brown to provide more opportunities for minorities in higher education. Bakke, a white student, instituted an action for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Regents of the University in the Superior Court of Yolo County, California. In his case, he stated that the state’s policy of reserving 16 out of 100 positions in a medical school program infringed upon his rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Alleging that the 16 slots reserved for minority students constituted a quota system that did not allow those students to compete fairly against other applicants, Bakke filed suit to have the program dismantled. However, since Bakke could not prove that he was personally discriminated against by this policy, the Court ruled against his petition. This case is relevant to the ongoing study because it brings forth one of the first cases of what today would be termed “reverse discrimination” on the part of an institution.