The United States Constitution guarantees its inhabitants liberty and equal opportunity. Historically, however, these fundamental rights have not always been provided as pledged. The American system of education is one such example.
From the earliest times in American history, the U.S. educational system mandated separate schools for children based solely on race. In many instances, the schools for African American children were substandard facilities with out-of-date textbooks and insufficient supplies. Court cases against segregated schools have been documented as far back as 1849. In 1861 a civil war was fought dividing the country along the lines of who should receive full rights and privileges under the U.S. Constitution. This conflict centered around the status of people of African descent who had been brought to America as slave labor.
Those who would end the practice of slavery prevailed. Yet in spite of the end of the Civil War in 1865, the inclusion of African Americans as full citizens required amending the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the Civil War was followed by the enactment of the 13th amendment ratified in 1865 which abolished slavery; the 14th amendment ratified in 1868 which conferred citizenship on the formerly enslaved people of African descent and bestowed equal protection under the law; and the 15th amendment ratified in 1870 which affirmed that the right of U.S. citizens to vote cannot be denied or abridged on account of race.
In spite of the mandates outlined in the newly amended U.S. Constitution, freedom and equal rights were not readily bestowed upon African Americans. Throughout this period, education was withheld from people of African descent. In some states it was against the law for this segment of the population to learn to read and write. Tremulous disappointment and disillusionment stirred African American people to continue to challenge this system of segregation.
In the first documented school desegregation case, Roberts vs. City of Boston, 1849, the courts denied Benjamin Roberts and other African American parents the right to enroll their children in certain Boston public schools. However, in 1855 the Massachusetts legislature banned racial segregation. Then in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court declared it law that “separate” but “equal” facilities be provided for African Americans. This landmark case from Louisiana necessitated separate dining facilities, restrooms, transportation, accommodations and more, including public education.
Equal rights remained virtually unattainable. Across the country numerous cases were taken to court between 1849 and 1949. In the state of Kansas alone there were eleven school integration cases between 1881 and 1949. In response to these unsuccessful attempts to ensure equal opportunities for all children, African American community leaders and organizations across the country stepped up efforts to change the educational system.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1908, took a key role in the move toward equal educational opportunity. Members were involved at every level, providing legal counsel, funding, and more.
From the mid 1930’s to the present the NAACP provided strategy and legal knowledge to use the courts as a proving ground to obtain full constitutional rights for African Americans. In the 1940’s and 1950’s local NAACP leaders spearheaded plans to end the doctrine of “Separate but Equal”. Public schools became the means to that end. Their local efforts would ultimately change the course of history.
The NAACP legal team devised a formula for success. As they organized cases the first requirement was that they involve multiple plaintiffs. Along their road to the U.S. Supreme Court five cases were developed from the states of Delaware, Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. None of these cases succeeded in the District Courts and all were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At this juncture they were combined and became known jointly as Oliver L. Brown et.al. vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
The Supreme Court decided to combine the cases because each sought the same relief from segregated schools for African Americans. The circumstances of the plaintiffs left no question that ending segregation as a historic practice would be the only viable outcome.
Charles Hamilton Houston argued most of the early NAACP cases. He had been the Dean of Howard Law School, a prestigious university for African Americans. He was teacher and mentor for many civil rights lawyers of that time including Thurgood Marshall. Houston died in 1950 leaving Thurgood Marshall as lead strategist and council for the school integration cases. Marshall led these cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, one hundred and five years after the 1849 Roberts case, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that segregation was unconstitutional and violated the 14th Amendment.
The Brown decision initiated educational reform throughout the United States and was a catalyst in launching the modern Civil Rights Movement. Bringing about change in the years since Brown continues to prove difficult. But the Brown v. Board of Education victory brought Americans one step closer to true freedom and equal rights.
Brown v. Board of Ed
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Question 1 of 5
How of the Supreme Court Justices, of the nine, voted to uphold the Plaintiff’s claim in Brown v. Board of Ed?Correct
The decision was unanimous; all nine justices voted for the decision.
Question 2 of 5
The chief counsel for the NAACP argued the Brown v. Bd. of Ed. case before the Supreme Court. What was his name?Correct
Question 3 of 5
The first city in the South to accept the Brown ruling was _________ ?Correct
Dwight D. EisenhowerIncorrect
Question 4 of 5
Homer Plessy was of mixed raced heritage. He was referred to in 1890’s New Orleans as an __________ .Correct
Octoroon, was a person that was one-eighth black.
Question 5 of 5
What year was the decision reached by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Brown v. Board of Ed?Correct
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This overview of the United States Supreme Court landmark decision of Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. , is a revised reprint from the Brown Foundation.
Read more of our posts covering other aspects of the “march” toward a desegregated society in the United States.
Thurgood Marshall, Chief Counsel, NAACP/Legal Defense Fund
(July 2, 1908 – January 24, 1993); One of America’s premier attorney’s, Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was a great-grandson of a slave.
Marshall at the age of 32 won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. That same year, 1940, he became the executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund . As counsel to the NAACP Marshall, represented the complainants in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court….read more
Robert L. Carter, Desegregation Architect
“In the United States, we make progress in two or three steps, then we step back, and blacks are more militant now and will not accept second-class citizenship as before.” – Robert L. Carter.
Zelma Henderson & the Board of Ed.
At 12:52 p.m. on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, commonly known as Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. The opinion stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and that the separate but equal doctrine, which allowed states to maintain racially segregated schools, had “no place” in public education. read more
Homer Plessy’s Legacy
Homer Plessy was an Octoroon, he was also a soldier in the war for African-American civil rights. That war began before the Civil War and before Homer Plessy challenged the segregation laws in Louisiana in 1892. read more