Brown v. Board of Education: The Law, the Legacy

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When the Negro writer Ralph Ellison learned of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, he exclaimed to a friend, “what a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children!”

Other Negro leaders of the time were equally excited by the court’s unanimous ruling, which struck down state-sponsored racial segregation in the public schools of the United States. Harlem’s Amsterdam News, a black-owned paper, called the decision the “greatest victory for the Negro people since the emancipation proclamation.” Thurgood Marshall, chief lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, recalled, “I was so happy I was numb.” Marshall expected state-supported school segregation to be wiped out, nationwide, within five years.

The enthusiastic expectations of Negro leaders in 1954 – and of liberal whites – were entirely understandable. Brown (as the decision came to be called) negated a key Supreme Court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had authorized public officials to establish racial segregation so long as separate facilities for blacks and whites were equal. This earlier court decision had sanctioned the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the management of relations between blacks and whites in many areas of the nation.

President Abraham Lincoln had freed American slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, during the Civil War. Yet this document hardly led to equality between whites and blacks in America. By 1910, statutory racial segregation was ubiquitous in the 11 states of the American South and widespread in nearby border states (states lying between the North and the South). It affected not only public schools but also hospitals and homes for the elderly, indigent, deaf, and blind. Black people in these states had to use separate rest rooms, drinking fountains, lunch counters, waiting rooms, and railroad cars, and to move to the back of buses and streetcars. Cleverly designed laws barred Negroes from voting in most of these areas.

A host of for-whites-only public accommodations – hotels and motels, restaurants and lunch counters, parks and beaches, swimming pools, libraries, concert halls, and movie theaters – further separated the races. Negro travelers on southern highways never knew where they might find a bed for the night – or even a bathroom. Some recreational areas posted signs, “Negroes [the word then used to identify African Americans] and Dogs Not Allowed.”

This rigidly enforced system afflicted public education at every level. All white state universities in the South – and many in the border states – barred African Americans. In 1954, 21 states either mandated or permitted segregation in the public schools. A total of 11.5 million white and black students in 11,173 school districts then attended these schools. They were nearly 39 per cent of America’s 28,836,000 public school pupils.

In spite of the Plessy decision’s requirement for equal facilities, by the early decades of the 20th century it was clear that “separate” by no means meant “equal.” Many school buildings for Negroes, especially in the Deep South, were ramshackle wooden structures that lacked heat, electricity, indoor toilet facilities, and running water. Negro pupils, crammed into overcrowded classrooms, shared hand-me-down textbooks no longer needed in the white schools. Their Negro teachers were poorly trained and badly paid. Negro schools commonly lacked cafeterias, auditoriums, libraries, science equipment, and sports programs. Among the plaintiffs in the Brown case were pupils from Clarendon County, South Carolina, who had to walk 10 miles round-trip to school because local officials refused to provide bus transportation. Many Negro children in the South, leaving school after the sixth or seventh grades, were scarcely literate.

The Brown decision, affirming American ideals of equality and justice, promised to abolish these evils. Desegregation of public schools, enthusiasts like Marshall believed, would not only promote equality of opportunity in education; it would also advance interracial toleration. In time, the races might become integrated in a world wherein skin color would no longer cripple one’s chances in life.

What Led to the Brown Decision

The Brown decision arose from the efforts of two groups of activists. The first were black parents and liberal white allies who resolved to fight discrimination. Among the earliest of these activists were parents in Clarendon County, South Carolina, who in 1947 demanded provision of school buses for their children. Parents in four other segregated districts – in the states of Virginia, Delaware, and Kansas, and in the District of Columbia – also sought legal assistance. The Brown case, combining these five protests into one, took its name from Oliver Brown, a welder and World War II veteran whose daughter, Linda, was barred from attending a white elementary school close to her home in Topeka, Kansas. Instead, she had to arise early, walk across dangerous railroad switching yards, and cross Topeka’s busiest commercial street in order to board a bus to take her to an all-Negro school.

At first, Negro parents did not dare to challenge segregation. Instead, they demanded real equality within the “separate but equal” system. In doing so, they aroused fierce local resistance. Whites fired black plaintiffs from their jobs and cut off their credit at local banks. In Clarendon County, hostile whites later burned one of the churches of the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a Negro protest leader. When white opponents fired at his home in the night, he shot back, jumped into a car, and fled. South Carolina authorities branded him as a fugitive from justice, and he dared not return to his home state.

The second group of activists consisted of lawyers – most of them Negroes – who worked for the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), an autonomous arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Chief among them was Marshall, a star graduate of Howard University Law School, a predominantly black school in Washington, D.C., that trained many bright attorneys in the 1930s and 1940s. Marshall, a folksy and courageous advocate, had long been managing cases on behalf of Negro causes, notably the desegregation of law schools. Responding to pleas from black parents in Clarendon County, he engaged the LDF in the struggle to promote racial equality in public school systems. In 1950, deciding that true equality could never exist within a separate but equal system, he and other NAACP leaders decided to call for the abolition of racial segregation in the schools.

In retrospect, the decision to fight school segregation seems to have been obvious and necessary. At the time, however, it was a highly controversial move. Many Negroes had no particular wish to send their children to schools with whites. Other Negroes feared that desegregation – if it ever could be achieved – would lead to the closing down of their schools, which, though starved for resources, were nonetheless important institutions of employment and of solidarity in the South. The decision to challenge segregation head-on, moreover, provoked even greater anger among southern whites. Governor Herman Talmadge of Georgia declared that he would never accept integrated schools. He later exclaimed that desegregation would lead to racial intermarriage and to “mongrelization of the races.”

But Marshall and his allies pressed ahead, shepherding all five cases through the lower federal courts between 1950 and 1952. Though they lost most of these cases – judges refused to overrule Plessy – they took heart from wider developments at the time that promised to advance better race relations. World War II having been waged as a fight for democracy exposed the evils of racism. American statesmen such as President Harry Truman, leading the West in the Cold War, were acutely aware that racial segregation in the United States, mocking American claims to lead the “Free World,” had to be challenged. Moreover, millions of southern Negroes were then moving to the North, where they were a great deal freer to organize and where their votes could affect the outcome of local and national elections.

For these and other reasons, many white Americans in the North in the early 1950s were developing doubts about segregation. As one writer later put it, “There was a current of history, and the Court became part of it.” Truman, sensitive to the power of this current, had ordered desegregation of America’s armed forces in 1948. His Justice Department supported Marshall’s legal briefs when the Brown cases first reached the Supreme Court for hearing in December 1952.

The Court, however, was an uncertain quantity. Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who hailed from the border state of Kentucky, was one of at least three of the nine justices on the Court who were believed to oppose desegregation of the schools at the time. Two other justices were apparently undecided. It was clear that the Court was deeply divided on the issue – so much so that advocates of racial justice dared not predict victory.

At this point, luck intervened to help the Legal Defense Fund and its plaintiffs. In September 1953, Vinson died suddenly of a heart attack. Hearing of Vinson’s death, Justice Felix Frankfurter, a foe of the chief, reputedly commented to an aide, “This is the first indication I have ever had that there is a God.” To replace Vinson, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed California Governor Earl Warren as chief. In doing so, the president, a conservative on racial issues, did not anticipate that Warren would advocate the desegregation of schools. But the new chief justice soon surprised him. A liberal at heart, Warren moved quickly to persuade his colleagues to overturn school segregation.

In part because of Warren’s efforts, the doubters on the Court swung behind him. Announcing the Brown decision in May 1954, Warren stated that racial segregation led to feelings of inferiority among Negro children and damaged their motivation to learn. His opinion concluded, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Negro children, he argued, had been deprived of the “equal protection” of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Putting the Court’s Ruling Into Practice

This was an historic decision. More than 50 years later, it remains one of the most significant Supreme Court rulings in U.S. history. In focusing on public schools, Brown aimed at the core of segregation. It subsequently served as a precedent for Court decisions in the late 1950s that ordered the desegregation of other public facilities – beaches, municipal golf courses, and (following a year-long black boycott in 1955-56) buses in Montgomery, Alabama. It was obvious, moreover, that no other governmental institution in the early 1950s – not the presidency under Eisenhower, not the Congress (which was dominated by southerners) – was prepared to attack racial segregation. It was no wonder that Ellison, Marshall, and many others hailed the ruling as a pivotal moment in American race relations.

It soon became obvious, however, that Brown would not work wonders. Like many Supreme Court decisions in American history, the ruling was limited to specific issues raised by the cases. Thus, it did not explicitly concern itself with many other forms of racial segregation – as in public accommodations – or with more informal but pervasive forms of racial discrimination, as in voting and employment. It deliberately avoided challenging a host of state laws that outlawed racial intermarriage. Targeting only publicly sponsored school segregation, Brown had no direct legal impact on schools in other parts of the nation. There, racially imbalanced schools were less the result of state or local laws (of de jure discrimination) than of informal actions (de facto discrimination) based on the reality of races inhabiting different neighborhoods. In the 1950s, as later, de facto segregated neighborhoods – and schools – flourished in the American North.

The Brown decision was cautious in another way: because Warren and his fellow justices feared to push segregating districts too hard, they did not order the immediate dismantling of school segregation. Instead, they deliberated for a year, at which point they issued a second ruling, Brown II, which avoided specifying what sort of racial balance might constitute compliance. Refusing to set a specific deadline for action, Brown II stated that desegregation should be carried out with “all deliberate speed.” This fuzzy phrase encouraged southern white authorities to procrastinate and gave federal courts in the South little guidance in resolving disputes that were already arising.

It is virtually certain, however, that whatever the Court might have said in 1954-55, and no matter how slowly it was willing to go, southern whites would have fought fiercely against enforcement of Brown. Indeed, and most ironically, schools then and later proved the most sensitive and resistant of America’s public institutions to changes in racial relations. Though many districts in the border states slowly desegregated, whites in the Deep South (often aided by the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups) bitterly opposed change. In 1956, virtually all southerners in Congress issued the so-called Southern Manifesto pledging to oppose school desegregation by “all lawful means.” In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus openly defied the Court, forcing a reluctant President Eisenhower – who never endorsed the Brown decision – to send in federal troops to enforce token desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. There – as in New Orleans, Nashville, Charlotte, and many other places – angry whites took to the streets in order to harass and intimidate black pupils on their way to school. In 1964, 10 years after Brown, fewer than 2 percent of black students in the South attended public schools with whites.

Impetus for the Civil Rights Movement

Thereafter, liberals finally made progress in their fight for the desegregation of schools. The driving force behind their gains was the civil rights movement, which swelled with enormous speed and power between 1960 and 1965. In 1964-65, pressure from the movement compelled Congress to approve two historic laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Vigorously enforced by federal officials within the administration of President Lyndon Johnson (1963-69), these measures succeeded in virtually demolishing a host of discriminatory racial practices, including segregation in public accommodations. In particular, the Civil Rights Act authorized cutting off federal financial aid to local school districts that continued to evade the message of Brown. Responding to the more militantly liberal temper of the times, the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, began ordering school officials not only to desegregate without delay but also to establish “racial balance.” By the late 1970s, roughly 40 percent of black public school pupils in the South were attending schools in which the student population was at least 50 percent white.

What did the Brown decision have to do with the rise of the civil rights movement – and therefore with these dramatic changes? In considering this question, scholars and others have offered varied answers. When the movement shot forward in the early 1960s, many people believed that Brown was a crucial catalyst of it. Then and later they have also argued that this first major decision energized and emboldened what became known as the liberal “Warren Court,” which zealously advanced the rights of minorities, criminal defendants, poor people, and others in need of legal protection. Among the men who helped to propel this liberal judicial surge was Thurgood Marshall, whom Johnson named as America’s first black Supreme Court justice in 1967.

Today, most scholars agree that Brown was symbolically useful to leaders of the civil rights movement. After all, the law, at last, was on their side. “Separate but equal” no longer enjoyed constitutional sanction. They also agree that Brown, the first key decision of the Warren Court, stimulated a broader rights consciousness that excited and in many ways empowered other groups – women, the elderly, the disabled, gay people, and other minorities – after 1960. These are the most important long-range legacies of the decision.

It is not so clear, however, that Brown was uniformly effective in the task it was supposed to accomplish, which was to promote complete desegregation of public school systems. On the contrary, by 1960 it was apparent that the legal strategies employed by men such as Marshall had failed to achieve desegregation of the schools. Realizing the limitations of litigation, which moved slowly, civil rights leaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., as well as militant activists in organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), seized on strategies of direct action. One strategy was “sit-ins,” where crowds of blacks sat down in places they weren’t supposed to go in the segregated South. Another was “freedom rides,” where activists boarded buses headed South to force desegregation of national bus lines and bus terminals – actions that provoked violent responses by mobs of local whites. There were also mass demonstrations. These confrontations, unleashing violence that flashed across millions of TV screens, shocked Americans into demanding that the government take action to protect the ideals and values of the nation.

The Brown Decision Today

Since the 1950s, America’s race relations have greatly improved. White attitudes are more liberal. A considerable black middle class has arisen. Some “affirmative action” policies aimed at preventing discrimination, scarcely imagined in the 1950s and 1960s, have secured Supreme Court approval. The historic civil rights laws of the 1960s continue to enjoy solid political support. Talented African Americans have risen to a range of leadership positions, including secretary of state of the United States. Thanks in part to the change in society and culture signaled and indeed initiated by Brown, the Bad Old Days of constitutionally sanctioned, state-sponsored segregation are gone forever.

But it is also obvious that Brown has not changed everything. In the 2000s, considerable racial inequality persists in the United States. The median income of blacks, though far better in real terms than earlier, remains at around 70 percent of median white income. Millions of African Americans continue to reside in central city areas where poverty, crime, and drug addiction remain serious. Though de jure segregation is, of course, now banned, barriers of income, culture, and mutual distrust still often separate the races. Especially in urban areas, public schools have re-segregated since the mid-1980s. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, courts, seeking to create racially balanced schools, mandated a certain amount of complex busing of pupils from one school district to another, at the local level. Labeled “forced busing” by its opponents, this action proved wildly unpopular among many whites. Thus, while many liberals have opposed re-segregation in recent years, they have received relatively little support from the courts, which since the 1990s have generally ruled that de facto residential segregation, not intentionally racist public policies, have promoted this re-segregating process, and that such segregation is not subject to further attempts at judicial reversal. Many black people, concerned, like whites, above all with sending their children to good schools, have concluded that engaging in protracted legal battles for educational desegregation plans involving busing or other complicated methods is no longer worth the effort or the expense.

Today, the percentage of black students in the South that attend white majority public schools has declined to around 30. Because many northern industrial cities by now have overwhelmingly black populations in parts of their central cores, the percentages of black students attending such schools outside the South are even lower. Hispanic Americans also often attend racially imbalanced schools. Many schools mainly attended by minority students are inferior – in per pupil spending and the training of teachers, certainly in levels of student achievement – to predominantly white schools in nearby affluent suburban districts.

If Ralph Ellison or Thurgood Marshall were alive today, each would undoubtedly be pleased that Brown ultimately helped to kill de jure school segregation. But they would also recognize that the dramatic decision, while a necessary step toward the promotion of racial justice, did not lead to the establishment of a uniformly integrated society. Whites and blacks in the United States are far more integrated than they were 50 years ago, especially in the workplace. But in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, the struggle to create societies where all are truly equal has yet to achieve its goal.

James T. Patterson, an historian of modern America, retired from teaching at Brown University in 2002. His recent books include Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (winner of the Bancroft Prize in history); Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy; and Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore.

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