Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

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Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the “Separate but Equal” doctrine and outlawed the ongoing segregation in schools. The court ruled that laws mandating and enforcing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools were “separate but equal” in standards. The Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous and felt that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and hence a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Nonetheless, since the ruling did not list or specify a particular method or way of how to proceed in ending racial segregation in schools, the Court's ruling iBrown II (1955) demanded states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”


The events relevant to this specific case first occurred in 1951, when a public school district in Topeka, Kansas refused to let Oliver Brown’s daughter enroll at the nearest school to their home and instead required her to enroll at a school further away. Oliver Brown and his daughter were black. The Brown family, along with twelve other local black families in similar circumstances, filed a class action lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education in a federal court arguing that the segregation policy of forcing black students to attend separate schools was unconstitutional. However, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas ruled against the Browns, justifying their decision on judicial precedent of the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause as long as the facilities and situations were equal, hence the doctrine known as "separate but equal." After this decision from the District Court in Kansas, the Browns, who were represented by the then NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Brown overruled Plessy v. Ferguson by holding that the "separate but equal" doctrine was unconstitutional for American educational facilities and public schools. This decision led to more integration in other areas and was seen as major victory for the Civil Rights Movement. Many future litigation cases used the similar argumentation methods used by Marshall in this case. While this was seen as a landmark decision, many in the American Deep South were uncomfortable with this decision. Various Southern politicians tried to actively resist or delay attempts to desegregated their schools. These collective efforts were known as the “Massive Resistance,” which was started by Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd. Thus, in just four years after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed its ruling again in the case of Cooper v. Aaron, holding that government officials had no power to ignore the ruling or to frustrate and delay desegregation. 

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]