Our Voices

5 Things to Know About the Brown v. Board of Education Case

In the fall of 1950, Oliver Brown, a Black church minister, tried to enroll his daughter Linda at Sumner Elementary School, a few blocks from their home in Topeka, Kansas. But she was denied enrollment because it was an exclusively white school. Linda, aged nine, was forced to walk across train tracks—sometimes in the cold winter—to attend an all-Black school two miles away from her home. Joined by twelve other Black parents with similar experiences, the Brown family sued the Topeka Board of Education in what would become known as Brown v. Board of Education.

1. The Brown v. Board of Education case is rooted in the “separate but equal” doctrine, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court upheld a Louisiana law which required whites and Blacks to ride in separate railroad coaches. The decision reinforced the legality of segregation laws enacted by state and local governments throughout the country after the end of the Civil War.

According to the judgment, racially segregated public facilities were legal as long as the services provided to each race were equal in quality. But this was often not the case, especially in the education system where Black students, in particular, were provided with substandard education opportunities.

As racial segregation against Blacks escalated across the United States, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a systematic legal campaign to reverse the doctrine of “separate but equal.” In 1951, the NAACP presented the Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka (KS) case before the federal district court in Topeka after persuading thirteen parents to volunteer as plaintiffs. But the federal district court ruled in favor of the defendants and the NAACP appealed the case to the Supreme Court along with four other similar cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

2. The Supreme Court consolidated the five cases under the title Oliver L. Brown et al. vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, et al.

3. Thurgood Marshall was Chief Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when the case was brought before the Supreme Court.

Having previously won some school segregation cases in lower courts, he took on Brown v Board of Education. While arguing his case before the Supreme Court, he presented several psychological studies, including one that found that majority of Black children preferred white dolls to black dolls. He would later become the first Black justice on the Supreme Court, serving from 1967 to 1991.

On May 17, 1954, in a unanimous decision delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment. The Court held that even if segregated Black and white schools were equal in quality, racial segregation in schools created inferiority complexes that may negatively impact Black children’s ability to learn, making it “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional.

4. Although the ruling did not immediately end racial segregation in schools, it had a profound impact on the Civil Rights Movement and advanced the fight against desegregation in housing, public facilities, and institutions of higher education.

It effectively marked the end of the “separate but equal” precedent in the Plessy v. Ferguson case.

Barely a year after, on May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court issued a second opinion in the case with directives to ensure implementation of its previous ruling.

5. The second opinion returned future segregation cases to lower federal courts, outlined steps for states to desegregate their schools, and directed district courts and school boards to commence desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” This became known as Brown v. Board of Education II.

As attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy demonstrated his devotion to civil rights and advocated for the implementation of the 1954 decision. That commitment continues to shape our Speak Truth to Power Human Rights Education Program today.