Case

Linda Brown was a seven-year-old girl who became the face of one of the most impactful Supreme Court cases in United States history. Linda Brown attended an all-black Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. In order to attend school each day, Linda had to cross railroad tracks and take a bus. However, the white elementary school was much closer to her house, only four blocks away. In addition, the white elementary school had better facilities than the all-black school. Brown was forced to travel this distance because of the racial segregation policies in schooling in Topeka. 

At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wanted the Supreme Court to rule that segregation in schooling was unconstitutional. The NAACP asked Linda’s father Oliver to enroll his daughter in the all-white school which was closer to them. Both Brown and the NAACP expected the Court to turn Linda away. The NAACP had similar asks of African-American parents in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and DC. When Linda was denied enrollment, her father and thirteen other plaintiffs sued their Boards of Education. Since Brown was alphabetically first, the case was titled Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Representing the plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who went on to be the United States’  first African American Supreme Court Justice. Brown and the NAACP argued that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. A doctrine of “Separate but Equal” was previously upheld by the Court and found not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment in Plessy v Ferguson (1896). It was the plaintiff’s goal to overturn this precedent. 

Civil RIghts issues were mounting during the 1950s and 60s. America was involved in the Cold War, and the US’ claims of democracy and freedom were undermined by policies which did not afford Black Americans the same freedom or democracy. President Truman was disturbed about the amount of black Americans who fought in World War II for democracy but came home to not be able to enjoy the fruits themselves. The Truman Administration submitted an Amicus Curiae brief for Brown. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, President Eisenhower was then in power but still supported the brief for the United States, which urged judicial action against school segregation. 

The Amicus Curiae argued that racial discrimination undermined the language of our founders in the Declaration of Independence which declared all men are equal. It went on to argue that we must set an example as a democracy and not lend ourselves to “Communist propaganda mills.” They noted that segregation harms children of color in numerous ways. The Court had to decide if segregation based on race, even though other factors may be equal, deprives children of equal education.

Decision

The Court ruled that segregation in education does immense harm. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that separate was inherently unequal, siding with the plaintiffs and overturning Plessy v Ferguson. Justice Warren wrote that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits states denying the equal protection of the laws, and segregation is just that. Warren wrote about the fundamental nature of education, calling it “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Warren went on to discuss the negative psychological impacts of segregation. With new psychological research, which was not existent at the time of Plessy, the Court was able to overturn precedent. The Court writes that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and separate facilities have a negative impact on African American children denying them a fair educational experience. The importance of the Court ruling unanimously cannot be overstated. This was done to send a direct message that segregational policies in education were unconstitutional, and the Court would be unlikely to ever overturn this decision. 

Impact

Brown was a major step in the Civil Rights Movement and signaled that the government was unwilling to support segregationist policies. However, the blowback to the Brown decision was massive. In 1956, the South responded by creating The Southern Manifesto which argued that the Court’s decision should not stand. In part, the Manifesto argued that social science findings should not be used in the reasoning of Supreme Court decisions. The more radical Southern politicians tried to create a united Southern front against desegregation with the support of governors to school administrators. 

A year later, the Court decided Brown v Board of Education II (1955), which focused on the implementation of the Brown ruling. This decision was more of a defeat for the NAACP, as the Court ordered for communities to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” The language used was not very clear, and led many schools to delay desegregationist and integrationist policies from taking effect. School segregation continued and many city planners and school administrators continued to favor predominantly white schools. Segregation was not just de facto after Brown but policy choices continued to perpetuate inequality. 

Nonetheless, Brown v Board of Education is a win for the Civil Rights Movement and those in favor of desegregated policies. Linda Brown remained a figure for desegregationist efforts and criticized areas which continued to fail to do their part in equalizing education for all students. Brown remains a remembered icon, sadly passing away in 2018.

    Learn More

    1. Erickson, A. T. (2012). Building Inequality: The Spatial Organization of Schooling in Nashville, Tennessee, after Brown. Journal of Urban History, 38(2), 247–270. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144211427115
    2. Gillman, Howard. American Constitutionalism, Second Edition. Volume II Rights and Liberties. [Virtual Source Bookshelf]. 
    3. Biography.com Editors (April 15, 2019). “Linda Brown Biography.” The Biography.com website. A&E Television Networks. https://www.biography.com/activist/linda-brown
    4. Gillman, Howard. American Constitutionalism, Second Edition. Volume I Structures of Government. [Virtual Source Bookshelf]. 

    Think Further

    1. What types of segregation do you continue to see today in the American school system?
    2. Are there any circumstances where racial segregation in schools is constitutional? 
    3. In what other ways, if any, do you believe the United States has yet to live up to the standard that “All Men Are Created Equal”?

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