A Look Back: Brown v. Board of Education

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“I don’t want any of you to fool yourselves, it’s just begun; the fight has just begun.”

Thurgood Marshall, Chief lawyer of NAACP

In the second half of the 20th century, America was booming. Despite the looming threat of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ from the ever increasing tension in the Cold War, the USA presented itself to the world as the land of opportunity, where dreams could come true. Innovation, independence and idyllic landscapes all functioned together to create the perfect propaganda-esque image of a modernised country. However, in reality, serious problems gripped the country, and one of the most important contemporary issues was that of race.

In 1950, much of the US race legislation was based on what were known as ”Jim Crow” laws. These laws were particularly detailed and were expanded on after the famous 1896 case Plessy vs. Ferguson, and the legal doctrine set out a ”separate but equal” approach to society. In essence, the doctrine legalized racial segregation between people of colour and the white population, so long as each received the same standard of a service. These laws applied to all public facilities, including public transport and in particular, education in schools. Problems soon arose from these Jim Crow Laws, as it was almost impossible to split resources evenly to ensure an equal approach, and this led to the underdevelopment of services for African-Americans and a lack of provisions and funding.

The Supreme Court, where the Brown v. Board of Education case was eventually heard.

In 1951, the Brown v. Board of Education case began. Initially, the case started as five separate class action lawsuits against the Board of Education, brought to the courts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The original lawsuit was filed on behalf of black schoolchildren and their families from Delaware, Kansas, Virginia, Washington D.C. and South Carolina. The lead plaintiff on the case, Oliver Brown, had chosen to file the lawsuit when his daughter had been refused entry to a white elementary school.

Oliver Brown’s daughter, Linda, was lucky enough to having funding to attend an all-black school, named Monroe Elementary. However, Linda was eight years old at the time, and would have to take a long bus journey to get to her school each day, when a ‘white’ High School was very close to her house. It wasn’t just education where the ”separate but equal” laws were failing. In the 1940 census taken in the USA, 42.1% of white Americans were found to be home owners, in contrast to only 20.5% of black Americans. In a similar vein of inequality, the median yearly income of the average working white man in 1949 was $3,150 while this was only $1,950 for those of colour.

Although the class action suits against the Boards of Education were filed in 1951, it would take three years for a final decision to come from the supreme court. A significant factor to the delaying of the case, surprisingly, was the impact perceived by US politicians that racial discrimination would have on foreign relations. Contemporary President Harry S. Truman had launched the Truman Doctrine on Containment in 1947, promoting the USA as the defender against communism of all forms, directly through military and economic aid. However, many senior US lawmakers felt that the racial segregation of America was also halting progress being made in improving US foreign relations with predominantly black countries.

When the five lawsuits were taken to court and heard again in the spring of 1953, they were guided by NAACP lawyer, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was a renowned, persuasive lawyer, and took many cases of racial injustice to court during his time; out of a total of 32 cases, he would win 29 of them. However, the case was once again stopped without clear consensus, and was then re-adjourned in the Autumn of 1953. At this time, special emphasis by the supreme court, was put on the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which contained the Equal Protection Clause. The judges were looking to see if the racial segregation, based on Jim Crow laws, violated this clause and thus was illegal. The court also looked back to the racial cases of the past, like Plessy v. Ferguson, to determine their posthumous legality, and found it suitable to overrule many previous decisions made by the court in order to uphold the American standard of liberty. Eventually, on 17th May, 1954, there was a 9-0 unanimous vote of the Supreme Court judges, in favour of the NAACP and Brown case. The decision consisted of a single opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, which was signed by all other judges.

“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Chief Justice Earl Warren of the Supreme Court

Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark case. It was a step in the right direction for the civil rights movement, and began the long and convoluted process of rewriting a system built on unequal laws. The ability of legal doctrines to be overturned by a case like Brown v. Board of Education shows that even the most traditional and long-standing rules can be recreated, and this dynamism is constantly present in law making. Although the case did not lead to the immediate integration of White and African American communities (not even in schools, as the infamous ‘Little Rock 9’ protests would begin in 1957), it did give African Americans a sense of legal empowerment. They had overturned this unfair legislation and would continue to push for reform.

A Civil Rights March in Washington D.C, 1963

The Brown v. Board of Education case would also spur the Civil Rights Movement into added motion in different fields. From the 5th of December, 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in Alabama would begin to protest against unfair segregation on board public transport. On 1st February 1960, the Woolworth sit-ins would begin in Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest the unfair treatment of African American citizens in restaurants and other services. Overall, while it all may have seemed a distant future to Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Brown, the landmark decision they achieved would cause the USA to become a more tolerant, harmonious place.


References

  1. US Supreme Court (1896) ”Plessy v. Ferguson” https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/163/537/
  2. The Legal Dictionary (2020) ”Jim Crow Laws” https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Jim+Crow+Law
  3. History (2020) ”Brown v. Board of Education: The First Step in the Desegregation of America’s Schools” https://www.history.com/news/brown-v-board-of-education-the-first-step-in-the-desegregation-of-americas-schools
  4. Schmoop (2020) ”Civil Rights Movement: Desegregation Statistics” https://www.shmoop.com/civil-rights-desegregation/statistics.html
  5. National Archives (2012) ”The 1940 Census” https://1940census.archives.gov/about/
  6. National Archives (First produced in 1954) ”Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education” https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brown-v-board
  7. Reuters (2014) ”Brown v. Board of Ed: Key Cold War Weapon” https://www.reuters.com/article/idUS408043084620140514

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