Even though slavery had been outlawed by President Abraham Lincoln, many southern states passed local laws that still prevented blacks from obtaining true freedom. Some local areas actually continued to treat blacks as slaves without calling them slaves. In areas where blacks were free, they weren’t truly free from the racist beliefs of many Americans.
Many of the racially prejudicial laws were known as the Jim Crow laws. Those laws banned blacks from using any public means of transportation that was used by whites. They couldn’t ride the same busses or trains; they couldn’t attend the same schools or seek medical treatment at the same doctor office or hospital used by whites.
In 1892, Homer Plessy, a black man, was ordered to give up his seat on a train in New Orleans to a white man as prescribed by Louisiana state law. Plessy was arrested. He believed that the state law was unconstitutional and violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, so he fought his arrest.
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After 4 years of legal fighting, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson made it to the US Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the high court ruled against Plessy, officially endorsing racial segregation. Writing for the majority decision, Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote:
“The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality. . . If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
For the next 50 years many areas of the United States used the Plessy decision and the ‘separate but equal’ doctrines to employ racial segregation in many public venues including the public schools. There were separate schools for whites and blacks. In towns like Topeka, Kansas, black school children would often have to travel long distances to reach a black school when a white school was close by.
Black civil rights leaders were fed up with the racial segregation of public schools. The NAACP decided to do something to change the segregation. They approached a number of black families in Topeka and asked them to try to enroll their kids in the white school closest to their homes.
One of those who took up the NAACP’s challenge was Oliver Brown. He took his 8-year-old daughter Linda to the white school only four blocks from their home and tried to enroll her. At the time, Linda was forced to walk over busy railroad tracks to catch a bus that took her to her black school.
As expected, the school refused to enroll Linda Brown because she was black and the school was a white school. Twelve other black families also tried to enroll their kids into nearby white schools and like Linda, they were also turned away because of their color.
This is what the NAACP had counted on. They filed a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board challenging the legality of racial segregation. Since Brown was the first name alphabetically of the 13 families, the legal case was named Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, or more commonly Brown v. Board of Education.
The lead attorney for the NAACP lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education was a black attorney by the name of Thurgood Marshall. Who would have known that 17 years later, this same black attorney that led the fight to end legal segregation would be the first black appointed to the US Supreme Court. Marshall, the great grandson of a black slave served 24 years on the Supreme Court before passing away in January 1993.
On this day, May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court issued its historic ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In a unanimous 9-0 vote, the high court declared that the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine and Jim Crow laws were indeed a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
“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. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
In their decision, the Supreme Court also wrote guidelines for the integration of the public schools. In those guidelines, they stated that the racial integration of public schools be made ‘with all deliberate speed.’
Following the Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, civil rights activists spent the rest of 1950s and 1960s fighting to eliminate racial segregation in many other areas of public life.
Sources for the above includes: Brown v. Board of Education; Linda Brown Biography; Brown v. Board of Ed is Decided; History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment; Brown v. Board of Education (1954); Brown v. Board of Education; Was ‘Brown v. Board’ a Failure?; Brown v. Board of Education (1954); Brown v. Board at Fifty: “With an Even Hand”; Thurgood Marshall Biography.