May 17, 1954: The Supreme Court unanimously rules public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.

Sixty years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Newly-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the opinion:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group…. We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The doctrine of “separate but equal” as justification for racial segregation emerged in the United States in the 1890s and was granted constitutional legitimacy in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the court upheld a Louisiana law that provided for separate railway cars for blacks and whites. This decision laid the foundation for the dismantlement of Reconstruction Era reform, and for the enactment of Jim Crow laws. While de jure segregation was not as all-encompassing in the North, many former Union states also maintained racially segregated schools: it was the policy of the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that Oliver L. Brown and twelve other plaintiffs challenged in Brown v. Board. At the time, the Board’s policy permitted Topeka’s school districts to segregate their elementary and middle schools. Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, the NAACP undertook a campaign to challenge “separate but equal” under legal premises. Under the direction of the NAACP, each of the plaintiffs enrolled their children in local all-white schools and, when the schools refused their children enrollment, filed a class action suit in the District Court of Kansas, which subsequently ruled in favor of the Board. This decision took place in 1951.

The case that was heard by the Supreme Court in 1953 comprised six separate NAACP-backed cases, including Brown v. Board. After much deliberation, the Warren Court decreed in a unanimous decision that the segregation of public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The justices were divided on how Brown could be enforced and on the issue of judicial activism versus restraint, but Warren pushed for unanimity to further legitimize the decision and prevent Southern resistance (which persisted regardless). Although Brown was a key decision and the first step toward the end of de jure segregation, the path to desegregation was long and uncertain, and did not encompass solutions to de facto inequalities that had emerged during over half a century of racist policies. Topeka desegregated its elementary schools within two years, but resistance in the South against the court’s decision and against desegregation was inexorable, resulting in incidents such as the Little Rock Crisis and other manifestations of what Virginian politicians dubbed “massive resistance”.

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