brown v. Board of Education (1954) (2023)

In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that separating children in public schools based on race was unconstitutional. It signaled the end of legalized racial segregation in American schools, nullifying the principle of "separate but equal" established in the Act of 1896pleasantv.Fergusoncase.

On May 17, 1954, United States Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren issued the unanimous decision in the landmark civil rights case.Brownv.Topeka, Kansas Board of Education. The state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and therefore unconstitutional. This landmark decision marked the end of the "separate but equal" precedent established by the Supreme Court nearly 60 years earlier inPlessy v. Fergusonand served as a catalyst for the expanding civil rights movement during the 1950s.

Arguments will be heard during the next term to determine exactly how the decision will be executed. A little over a year later, on May 31, 1955, Warren read the unanimous decision of the Court, now known asbrown II, instructing states to initiate desegregation plans "with all deliberate speed."

Despite two unanimous decisions and careful, if vague, wording, there was considerable resistance to the Supreme Court's decision inBrownv.board of education. In addition to the obvious disapproval of segregationists, there were some constitutional scholars who felt the ruling went against legal tradition by relying heavily on data provided by social scientists rather than precedent or established law. Advocates of judicial restraint believed that the Court had exceeded its constitutional powers in drafting a new law.

However, minority groups and members of the civil rights movement were encouraged by theBrowndecision even without specific instructions for its implementation. Advocates of judicial activism believed that the Supreme Court had appropriately used its position to adapt the rationale of the Constitution to address new problems in new times. The Warren Court maintained this course for the next 15 years, deciding cases that significantly affected not only race relations but also the administration of criminal justice, the operation of the political process, and the separation of church and state.

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Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (USSC+)

Indicted December 9, 1952

Restated December 8, 1953

Decided on May 17, 1954



The segregation of white and colored children in the public schools of a state solely on the basis of race, in accordance with state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies black children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, even if the physical facilities and other "tangibles" of black and white schools may be the same.

(a) The history of the Fourteenth Amendment is inconclusive as to its intended effect on public education.

(b) The issue presented in these cases must be determined not on the basis of conditions existing when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but in light of the full development of public education and its present place in American life throughout the country.

(c) When a State undertakes to provide an opportunity for education in its public schools, that opportunity is a right that must be available to all on equal terms.

(d) Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives minority children of equal educational opportunity, even though physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be the same.

e) The "separate but equal" doctrine adopted inpleasantv.Ferguson, 163 US 537, has no place in the field of public education.

(f) The cases are returned to the file for further discussion on specific issues related to the forms of the decrees.


MISTER. PRESIDING JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.
These cases come to us from the states of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. They are based on different facts and different local conditions, but a common legal issue justifies their joint consideration in this consolidated opinion.

In each case, the black minors, through their legal representatives, seek the assistance of the courts in gaining admission to their community's public schools on a desegregated basis. In each case, they were denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws that required or allowed segregation based on race. This segregation was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. In each case except Delaware, a three-judge federal district court denied relief to the plaintiffs based on the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine announced by this Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 USA 537. Under that doctrine, equal treatment is accorded when breeds receive substantially equal facilities, even if those facilities are separate. In the Delaware case, the Delaware Supreme Court adhered to this doctrine, but ordered that the plaintiffs be admitted to white schools because of their superiority over black schools.

The plaintiffs assert that segregated public schools are not "equal" and cannot be "equal" and are therefore deprived of the equal protection of the laws. Due to the obvious importance of the question raised, the Court took jurisdiction. Argument was heard in the 1952 Term, and new argument was heard in this Term on certain issues proposed by the Court.

The reorganization was largely devoted to the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It comprehensively covered the Amendment's consideration in Congress, ratification by states, then-existing practices of racial segregation, and the views of proponents and opponents of the Amendment. This discussion and our own research convince us that while these sources shed some light, it is not enough to solve the problem we are facing. At best, they are inconclusive. The most avid supporters of the postwar amendments no doubt intended to eliminate all legal distinctions between "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." His opponents, just as surely, opposed both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wanted them to have the most limited effect. What others in Congress and state legislators had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

An additional reason for the inconclusive nature of the Amendment's history regarding segregated schools is the state of public education at the time. In the South, the movement towards free common schools, supported by general taxes, had not yet taken hold. The education of white children was largely in the hands of private groups. Black education was almost non-existent and virtually the entire race was illiterate. In fact, any education of blacks was prohibited by law in some states. Today, by contrast, many blacks have achieved remarkable success in the arts and sciences, as well as in business and the professional world. It is true that public school education at the time of the Amendment had advanced further in the North, but the effect of the Amendment on Northern states was generally ignored in congressional debates. Even in the North, conditions for public education were nowhere near what they are today. The curriculum was generally rudimentary; schools without degrees were common in rural areas; the school term lasted only three months of the year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unheard of. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there is so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment regarding its intended effect on public education.

In the first cases in this Court interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, decided shortly after its adoption, the Court interpreted it as prohibiting all state-imposed discrimination against the Negro race. The "separate but equal" doctrine did not appear in this Court until 1896 in the case ofpleasantv.Ferguson, supra, which does not involve education but transportation. Since then, American courts have worked with the doctrine for more than half a century. In this Court there were six cases related to the doctrine "separate but equal" in the field of public education. Inenjoyv.Municipal Board of Education, 175 US 528, egong lumv.Rice, 275 US 78, the validity of the doctrine itself was not challenged. In more recent cases, all at the graduate level, inequality was found to the extent that specific benefits enjoyed by white students were denied to black students with the same educational qualifications.Missouri ex rel. Profitsv.Canada, 305 US 337;Sipuelv.Oklahoma, 332 US 631;sweatv. Painter, 339 U.S. 629;McLaurinv.Regents of the state of Oklahoma, 339 USA 637. In none of these cases was it necessary to reexamine the doctrine to grant relief to the black author. Is insweatv.Painter, supra, the Court expressly reserved for itself the decision on the question of whetherpleasantv.Fergusonshould be considered inapplicable to public education.

In the present cases, this question arises directly. here, on the contrarysweatv.Painter, there are findings below that the black and white schools involved have been matched, or are being matched, with respect to buildings, curricula, teacher qualifications and salaries, and other "tangible" factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot depend solely on a comparison of these tangible factors in the black and white schools involved in each of the cases. Instead, we must look at the effect of segregation itself on public education.

In addressing this issue, we cannot turn back the clock to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, whenpleasantv.Fergusonit was written. We must view public education in the light of its full development and its current place in American life across the country. Only then can it be determined whether segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the law.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and large spending on education demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is necessary to carry out our most basic public responsibilities, including service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the main instrument to awaken children to cultural values, preparing them for their subsequent professional training and helping them to adapt normally to their environment. Today, it is doubtful whether a child can reasonably be expected to succeed in life if denied the opportunity for an education. Such an opportunity, when the State undertakes to provide it, is a right that must be available to all under equal conditions.

So we come to the question at hand: Does segregating children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even if physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be the same, deprive minority children of educational opportunities? equitable? We think so.

emsweatv.Painter, supra, in finding that a segregated black law school could not offer them the same educational opportunities, this Court relied heavily on "those qualities that cannot be objectively measured but that contribute to a great law school." . InMcLaurinv.Regents of the state of Oklahoma, supra, the Court, in requiring that a black admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again appealed to intangible considerations: "...and, in general, to learn his trade." Such considerations apply with additional force to children in primary and secondary schools. Separating them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race creates a sense of inferiority about their status in the community that can affect their hearts and minds in ways they are unlikely to undo. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well demonstrated by a decision in the Kansas case by a court that nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the black plaintiffs:

The segregation of black and white children in public schools has a detrimental effect on black children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, since the policy of separation of races is usually interpreted as a denotation of inferiority of the black group. A feeling of inferiority affects a child's motivation to learn. Segregation under the law, therefore, tends to [retard] the educational and mental development of black children and deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time ofpleasantv.Ferguson, this finding is widely supported by modern authority. any language inpleasantv.Fergusoncontrary to this conclusion is rejected.

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions are brought are, by reason of the segregation claimed, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This provision makes unnecessary any discussion of whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Due to the fact that they are collective actions, the wide applicability of this decision and the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases presents problems of considerable complexity. In the new argument, consideration of adequate redress was necessarily subordinated to the main issue: the constitutionality of segregation in public education. We now announce that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws. So that we can count on the full assistance of the parties in the formulation of the decrees, the minutes will be replaced on the agenda, urging the parties to present new arguments on Questions 4 and 5 previously proposed by the Court for review. of this Term. The Attorney General of the United States is once again invited to participate. Attorneys general of states that require or permit segregation in public education may also appear as amici curiae upon request before September 15, 1954, and petitions filed before October 1, 1954.

It's so neat.

* Along with #2,Briggs and others.v.Elliott et al., on appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina, argued December 9-10, 1952, restated December 7-8, 1953; No. 4,Davis and AI.v.County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al., on appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, argued December 10, 1952, reorganized December 7 and 8, 1953, and #10,Gebhart and ai.v.Belton et al., in certiorari before the Delaware Supreme Court, argued December 11, 1952, restated December 9, 1953.

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