Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

347 U. S. 483 (1954)

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." — Chief Justice Earl Warren

Case Summary

A Kansas law permitted cities with populations of more than 15,000 to maintain separate public schools for African American and white students. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, maintained segregated elementary schools, but other schools in the district were not segregated. Linda Brown, an African American third grader, and her family lived in Topeka, and there was an elementary school just five blocks from their home. However, that school was reserved for white children only, and Linda had to ride a bus to a school 21 blocks from her home that was reserved for African American children only. In 1951, Linda’s parents joined with the parents of some other African American children and brought suit against the Topeka Board of Education in a U. S. District Court. Thurgood Marshall, an attorney from the NAACP, represented the African American parents. Marshall argued that the African American and white schools were not equal in a number of ways, but more than that, he argued that segregated schools were harmful to African American children. A three-judge U. S. District Court agreed that racially segregated public schools had a detrimental effect on African American children. The court, nevertheless, declined to order the desegregation of the public schools because in its opinion the schools were substantially equal, and that was all that was required by the nation’s law at that time.

Class action suits were filed at the same time as Brown in three other states — South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. In all three states, African American children were compelled by state law to attend racially segregated public schools. The Kansas case and the cases from the other three states were consolidated and appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court where they were argued and decided together.

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following question:

Does the racial segregation of children by state law in public schools, even though the separate schools may be equal, deny minority children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment?

Decision

Warren Court (1953–1969)

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court. He stated: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Instead of weighing and comparing the equality of racially segregated schools on such things as buildings, curriculum, qualifications and salaries of teachers, etc., the Chief Justice said the Court had directed its attention to the heart of the matter: the effect of racial segregation on children. He wrote: “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. … 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 deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system. … Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.”

NOTE: On the same day that the Court handed down its decision in Brown, the Court also ended racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia in Bolling v. Sharpe. Since there is no equal protection of the laws guarantee specifically aimed at the federal government anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, the Court used the due process of law clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to accomplish this.

NOTE: The Supreme Court heard reargument in Brown v. Board of Education IIin 1955. The Court was again unanimous, and Chief Justice Warren once more spoke for the Court. Warren wrote this time: “… the cases are remanded to the District Courts to take such proceedings and enter such orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.”

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