Our Voices

The Month of May: Celebrating the Brown v. Board of Education Ruling

  • By
  • India Norris

A landmark Supreme Court decision handed down May 17, 1954, forever shifted education – and life – for Black Americans.

While the discussion around school segregation began well before Brown v. Board of Topeka, the most integral legal changes occurred in the 1950s.

The NAACP in 1938 took on the case of Lloyd Gaines, a Black student denied entry to the University of Missouri law school.

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada was argued before the Supreme Court, and the majority decision sided with Gaines, stating that Missouri denying Gaines’ admission to its law school based on race was unacceptable. The Supreme Court ruling, though a step in the right direction, was not about desegregation, but rather Missouri’s lack of schools for Black people.

As time went on, however, cases about basic access to education for Black students became cases about segregation in public schools.

These cases arose in several states, alleging that educational segregation is an infringement on rights afforded by the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Brown v. Board of Education was filed by plaintiff Oliver Brown and his lawyer, John Scott, after Brown’s daughter was denied entry to Topeka public schools. Brown was combined with four other cases with the original Topeka case, including suits filed in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.

The legal segregation of public schools in the U.S. began with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld Louisiana’s state law that segregation of public facilities was acceptable, as long as those facilities were equal. The “separate but equal” doctrine remained for decades, normalizing a divide between resources for white and Black people.

When Brown v. Board of Education was first before the court in 1952, justices were divided on the issues involved and whether to rule on them. The Chief Justice at the time, Fred M. Vinson, acknowledged the failure of the “separate but equal” doctrine, however, was reluctant to overturn it because he also favored judicial restraint. When Vinson died unexpectedly in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed California Gov. Earl Warren to the bench.

The Warren Court, in 1954, unanimously deemed educational segregation to be unconstitutional, even if the education received by Black students was equal in quality to that of white students, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson.

This ruling changed the course of history, promoting true equality for Black Americans and serving as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

After the Brown decision, SCOTUS in 1955 ruled that future desegregation cases be dealt with by the lower courts, urging them to promote desegregation.

Unfortunately, it also led to more racial turmoil, especially in the South. Local officials were quick to exploit their sudden acquisition of power and defy the Brown decision. One example is the Little Rock Nine: Nine Black students were denied entry to an Arkansas public school by the National Guard, who were deployed by Gov. Orval Faubus. But President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort them more safely into the school.

The landmark Brown v. Board of Education case set the precedent for a more just definition of racial equality in the United States. While the case had its shortcomings – especially with resistance from southern states – it engaged a preliminary sense of unity among Americans. Rather than the “separate but equal” doctrine treating Black people as the “other,” this case demonstrated the need to treat all people equally, regardless of race.