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Breaking Barriers: A Summary of Brown v Board of Education

Following the Sweatt and McLaurin victories, Charles Hamilton Houston at Howard Law School and his star student Thurgood Marshall at NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund developed a systematic attack on the doctrine of separate but equal. They filed lawsuits that folded into the case that would become Brown v Board of Education.

What Happened?

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was declared violated by the Supreme Court when it came to student segregation. The decision resulted from a decade-long legal campaign launched in the 1930s by Charles Hamilton Houston, then Dean of Howard Law School and head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. From 1955 onwards, it was led by Thurgood Marshall, who became the LDF’s chief counsel and would later become the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice.

Oliver Brown, an African American parent residing in Topeka, Kansas, along with other families from the local community, filed a lawsuit against the city’s school board. Their grievance centered around the board’s refusal to allow their children admission to a white neighborhood school merely five blocks from their residence. This case was consolidated with four additional school segregation cases, collectively presented to the Supreme Court as a consolidated appeal recognized as Brown v. Board of Education. Refer to the Brown v Board of Education summary for a brief overview.

All five cases were challenged using a legal argument developed by the NAACP attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall. The NAACP argued that the Supreme Court’s precedent in Plessy—which established “separate but equal” as the legal standard for schools—was no longer valid.

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The justices heard arguments in the case in October 1951. The case was delayed for a year when Chief Justice Vinson suffered from a heart attack. President Dwight Eisenhower, a proponent of desegregation, appointed Earl Warren as the new chief justice. The justices sided with the Browns, unanimously ruling that segregation of students violated the Constitution’s equality clause. The decision, however, did not explicitly state how segregation should be ended.

The Case

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) initially brought the case that would eventually become known as Brown in 1951 on behalf of Linda Brown and other Topeka, Kansas, parents. The case was later combined with four other school segregation cases by the NAACP and argued before the Supreme Court in 1954.

The district courts had ruled against the plaintiffs, citing Plessy and arguing that although segregation deprived black students of equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, it did not make them unequal. However, the Supreme Court agreed to reopen the case.

Thurgood Marshall, who would soon become the first African American justice on the Supreme Court, was lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Brown case. He and Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of Howard Law School and founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, were part of a campaign to end segregation initiated in the 1930s, ultimately leading to Brown v Board of Education.

Racial segregation in public schools was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court. It was not a broad decision and did not address segregation in other public facilities like housing or workplaces. Nevertheless, it ignited the civil rights movement that started in the 1950s and 1960s and established an important precedent.

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The Decision

The Court ruled in favor of the Brown family, striking down racial segregation as unconstitutional. The ruling ignited the fledgling civil rights movement into a full-scale revolution and represented a pivotal moment in the movement’s history. While the legal victory did not transform America overnight, and much work remains, striking down racial segregation set a precedent for future desegregation of housing, public accommodations, and higher education institutions.

The Supreme Court decided that the Kansas laws requiring segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision was based on the fact that segregation did not provide students of different races with “equal benefits and opportunities” and thus was unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion on behalf of a unanimous court. Some constitutional scholars believed the Court had overstepped its jurisdiction by writing new laws. Others criticized that the Court relied on information from social science studies rather than on established legal doctrine or precedent.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision and the efforts of NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall, many local political and judicial leaders chose to ignore the ruling and continue with segregation. In one of the most dramatic instances, President Eisenhower had to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to ensure that nine Black students could attend their integrated high school.

The Reaction

After the Court struck down the separate but equal doctrine in Brown, many states took steps to end segregation. The ruling sparked the Civil Rights Movement and set a precedent that other courts would use to overturn laws that mandated or permitted segregation. Today, Brown v Board of Education is still considered one of American history’s most important court decisions.

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The story of Brown began when Oliver and Bessie Brown, a black family from Topeka, Kansas, were denied the opportunity to send their daughter to her local school. Instead, the school required the Browns to drive to a segregated white school that was farther away from their home. The case went to federal Court when the family sued.

When the decision came down, there was a mixed reaction. Some newspaper editorials praised the decision, while others condemned it. White Southerners vowed resistance to the Supreme Court’s desegregation order.

In the following months, the Justice Department worked to enforce the decision. The Department sued hundreds of school districts and fought to force them to integrate. These legal challenges were a precursor to the later victories of the LDF in Green v County School Board and Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.

Eugene is a talented head chef at a popular restaurant, but for years, he struggled with substance abuse and cycled in and out of jail. When he was referred to Breaking Barriers by his probation officer, he could access housing and case management services. These services helped him get back on track and find a new career that allowed him to provide for his family.

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