How Brown V Board of Education Changed the Face of Education

Before Brown, many schools were segregated, and the educational facilities for Black students lacked quality. The decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 overturned Plessy and ruled that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. The Supreme Court did not set a clear timeline for desegregation but ruled that schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” This was a significant step towards equality, but the fight was far from over.

The Case

By the time Brown was considered for Supreme Court review in 1954, it had long been apparent to public officials and scholars that segregation rarely, if ever, produced equality. The physical facilities offered to African Americans were usually worse than those enjoyed by whites, and racial separation robbed both groups of their most prized social and cultural heritage.

In 1951 Oliver Brown, a minister in his local Topeka community, filed a class-action lawsuit against the local school board for denying his daughter entrance into the town’s all-white schools. The NAACP took up his case and four others against schools in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, combining them into one point, Brown v. Board of Education.

The NAACP hired some of the country’s best legal talent for these cases. Thurgood Marshall, who would become the Legal Defense Fund’s first director-counsel and later a Supreme Court justice, led the charge.

The lawsuits relied heavily on social science research to illustrate the detrimental psychological effects of segregation on Black children. The Court appointed Kenneth Clark, a renowned expert in childhood psychology, to testify for the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court largely credited Clark’s testimony in its landmark ruling in Brown. The decision struck down the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine as unconstitutional for American educational facilities and public schools.

The Decision

Racial segregation in public schools was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court. The decision was made after a long and hard-fought campaign to overturn the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling by the Court’s predecessors that had upheld segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” This campaign was masterminded and executed by Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of Howard Law School, who recruited top attorneys for his NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including Thurgood Marshall (later a Supreme Court Justice).

According to the Brown judgment, regulations requiring separate educational facilities are fundamentally unfair since they go against the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

It also cited social science studies showing that separating black and white children in schools harmed both groups.

However, it did not specify a timetable by which schools must be desegregated. This allowed most states to keep up their segregation until the 1960s. It was a bittersweet victory for civil rights advocates.

In his opinion for the majority, Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter framed the issue by emphasizing that the framers of the Constitution understood equality and segregation as inconsistent and that the Court had no choice but to enforce equality or violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee. But it was a flawed decision that failed to engage and involve all of American society in the quest for justice.

The Consequences

In the aftermath of Brown, a long battle was waged to end legal segregation in America. It took a long time to convince justices initially intending to dissent from the case that desegregation was proper and necessary. Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter used the reargument to encourage judges to join a unanimous opinion.

One of the most significant consequences of Brown was that it spurred many African Americans to become active in the Civil Rights Movement. It is widely believed that the Civil Rights Movement eventually ended legal segregation in America.

However, Michael Klarman argues that this is a simplistic narrative of the impact of Brown. He argues that the Court’s decision to overturn Plessey and declare that the Supreme Court was on the side of desegregation inspired many African Americans to become active in the Civil Rights movement, but this did not lead directly to ending legal segregation.

Another necessary consequence of Brown was that it made clear that legal segregation was unjust and infringed on the Constitution’s equal protection clause. It also opened the door for litigation on other forms of legal discrimination, such as housing, employment, and government services. This culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Future

After Brown’s 1954 ruling, Marshall recruited a top-notch team of lawyers, including Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, and Charles Redding. Harry Briggs (Briggs v. Elliot), Linda Brown Smith (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka), Spottswood Bolling (Bolling v. Sharpe), Dorothy E. Davis (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County), and Elizabeth Gebhart (Gebhart v. Belton) were among the five class action lawsuits that were coordinated and consolidated into Brown.

Brown did not set a firm timetable for ending segregation. Instead, the Court ordered public schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Unfortunately, despite the Supreme Court’s order, many school boards refused to follow it. In the face of fierce and sometimes violent “massive resistance,” LDF sued hundreds of school districts to vindicate Brown’s promise.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education paved the way for education’s future. In a world where online learning, remote learning, personalized learning experiences, and cultural competency are just as crucial to student success as classroom instruction, the Court’s decision will continue to have far-reaching implications. Education’s changing landscape will require teachers to be flexible and adaptive, showing students how technology can be used to expand their learning experience. Educators must also demonstrate how their knowledge of culture and history can help them connect with diverse students and reach them across the country’s educational divide.


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