The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine endorsed by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. It ordered school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
Its victory was a watershed event that launched the civil rights movement.
The decision in the Brown V. Board of Education article was not as broad as it might initially appear. It did not declare all segregated public facilities unconstitutional or set a deadline for schools to integrate. The decision was more about reaffirming the high ideals of the 14th Amendment and putting pressure on Congress to act.
The Supreme Court based its decision on social science research that showed how harmful segregation was to black children. Research such as Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s experiment, in which they showed white and black children dolls and asked them to choose which ones they liked best or wanted to play with, showed how the inherent inequality of a system that separated students by race undermined their education.
Despite the evidence, there was a backlash to the decision. Many politicians avoided implementing the decision, and racist Southerners formed groups such as the White Citizens Councils to uphold their Jim Crow laws.
The violence committed by these officials outraged Northern liberals and put pressure on the Kennedy administration to introduce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act would eventually allow federal officials to cut off aid to states that refused to desegregate their schools. It took years for most segregated schools to be integrated, but it was ultimately achieved. This is a vital part of how Brown helped to end legal segregation in America.
The case originated in 1951 when a school system in Topeka, Kansas, refused to allow Oliver Brown’s daughter to attend the white school closest to their house. Instead, the girl had to ride a bus to a segregated black school farther away. Oliver Brown and twelve other local families filed a class action lawsuit against the school board in federal court, arguing that their separation was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ruled unanimously that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The ruling was widely hailed as a landmark decision that helped to bring about the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. However, some scholars have argued that Brown had limited success in desegregating schools. For example, Clayborne Carson argues that since the ruling did not explicitly state how to end legal school segregation, it may have allowed die-hard segregationists to decouple violence from the issue and, therefore, maintain it for longer.
After the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, Black teachers and students began to see desegregation as a real possibility. But their efforts were met with fierce resistance. Some school districts resorted to violence. Others used tactics like dismissals or demotions and rewriting tenure laws to make it easier to fire teachers based on poor performance.
Despite these challenges, the Brown ruling was transformative. It signaled that the government would protect the rights of citizens regardless of state laws that threatened those rights, and it helped launch America’s civil rights movement. It also served as a model for other countries tackling systemic racism.
One of the most important aspects of Brown was that it made clear that segregation was not just unfair but illegal. It also dismantled the legal framework that had created segregation and other Jim Crow laws, which restricted the rights of African Americans, particularly in the South.
The case began in 1951 when the Topeka, Kansas, school district refused to enroll Oliver Brown’s daughter at a whites-only public school and required her to ride a bus to a Black school farther away. The family sued, arguing that the schools were separate and unequal and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The court’s decision struck down the legal basis for school segregation and ushered in a new era of equality in America. However, it left several questions about how to implement desegregation, including when and how it should happen, which led to states and school districts dragging their feet on integration.
The decision was a watershed moment in America’s civil rights progress, but Brown also had unintended consequences. In the 1940s, the NAACP began a concentrated effort to challenge segregated school systems nationwide. In Topeka, Kansas, for instance, the NAACP encouraged parents to ask to enroll their children in white schools—but all requests were denied. The NAACP filed a class action lawsuit against the district, and Thurgood Marshall was selected to argue the case in front of the Supreme Court.
When the decision was handed down, there was no ambiguity about its intent or its impact: segregation of public education is unconstitutional. Yet even though the decision was unanimous, there was much resistance to its implementation. The segregationists argued that the Court had departed from legal tradition by relying on sociological data instead of established law and precedent. Supporters of judicial restraint felt that the Court had overstepped its constitutional powers by writing new laws.
In many places, desegregation was a messy and drawn-out process. Especially in Southern states, where the segregation of public schools was codified into law, federal courts often required and oversaw the process of integration. This helped facilitate early successes and could lead to resegregation once federal oversight ended.