2014 marks the 66th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark Supreme Court decision that declared state-sanctioned segregation unconstitutional. Despite falling short of many early hopes, the decision inspired the Civil Rights Movement and catalyzed the legislation that ended legal segregation.
While historians differ on the extent to which Brown directly influenced the Civil Rights Movement, all agree that it inspired its leaders and pushed the federal government into formulating laws that ultimately ended segregation.
1. The Case
The case that came to be known when was the Brown vs Board of Education formed was due to five separate cases consolidated before the Supreme Court. The cases at issue were Brown itself, Gebhart v. Sharpe (filed in Delaware), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), and Briggs v.
Elliott (filed in South Carolina). Each was handled by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, founded by Thurgood Marshall. The cases were brought to Court after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started a concentrated effort to challenge segregation in schools.
In 1951, the NAACP encouraged parents to enroll their children in white neighborhood schools where they lived, but their requests were denied. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by segregation, the Supreme Court concluded in the case of Brown.
Although the Court didn’t immediately achieve school desegregation, this decision sparked a civil rights movement that eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the key events that sparked this movement was Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
The violent reaction of Commissioner Bull Connor and his police force prompted widespread outrage, and Northern liberals began to push for action from the federal government. The Civil Rights Movement would carry this momentum forward, and a year after Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
2. The Court
The Supreme Court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. This historic ruling overturned the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson precedent and inspired the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.
The case arose from a series of lawsuits filed against school districts in various states by the NAACP. Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney for these lawsuits, would become the first African American Supreme Court justice.
It was well known by 1954 that segregation rarely, if ever, led to equality. Several studies have shown that educational facilities for black students were inferior to those for whites and that racial segregation in housing, public transportation, and other services was harmful.
Despite these facts, many Southern officials did not comply with the Brown decision. In a landmark example, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas mobilized the state National Guard to prevent nine African Americans from entering Central High School in Little Rock. The president responded by sending federal troops to protect the students, resulting in a tense standoff for months.
Most scholars see Brown as an inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement, though they disagree on how much influence it had on actual desegregation. Some historians, including Clayborne Carson and David Garrow, argue that the movement was largely independent of Brown and that several long-term factors led to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement.
3. The Backlash
After school officials refused to allow Oliver Brown’s daughter to enroll at the public school closest to their home in 1951, his family and twelve others in Topeka, Kansas, filed a lawsuit against the local school district.
In 1954, the Supreme Court declared unanimously that segregated educational facilities were fundamentally unfair and that legislation imposing segregation was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The Brown ruling reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling’s legal precedent and paved the way for school integration nationwide.
Despite the victory of the Brown decision, segregation continued in the South for several years. The decision inspired many African American students and parents to defy restrictive Jim Crow laws and engage in civil rights protests. This resistance was met with violent police brutality, which helped fuel the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Michael Klarman argues that the Brown decision was not the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement but was rather one of several long-term factors. He uses polling data to show that Civil Rights did not enter the political conversation as an essential issue until after Brown and that the Civil Rights Movement grew due to many other factors, including a generation of black soldiers who had returned home from World War II. This national consciousness began with the Double Victory campaign, and a new black middle class emerged.
4. The Consequences
The decision in Brown prompted the Civil Rights Movement and helped to desegregate many aspects of American society, but it was least successful in integrating schools. Even after decades of integration, black students remain disproportionately represented in predominantly white schools today.
The disparity is partly due to federal requirements that communities pursue residential integration and programs to subsidize the movement of low-income families into middle-class neighborhoods.
Still, it also has to do with school resource inequality. The lack of resources means that disadvantaged students often cannot compete with middle-class students, who can access more academic support, advanced textbooks, and computers.
When the Supreme Court decided the Brown case in 1954, it ruled that the segregation of public school children was unconstitutional under Plessy v. Ferguson. This 1896 Supreme Court decision legalized racial segregation in America. Unlike Plessy, the 1954 Brown Decision found that segregation rarely, if ever, produced equality and that equality was a fundamental constitutional right.
Michael Klarman has argued that Brown, by overturning Plessy and declaring that the Supreme Court was on the side of desegregation, inspired many African Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement. This caused the Civil Rights Movement to grow and led to the end of legal segregation in America. However, this narrative of the impact of Brown misses an essential element of its story: the backlash.