Lesson Plan - Get It!
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was constitutional. (Check out our lesson under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar to learn more.)
For decades after, racial segregation was legal in the United States. However, in 1954, that changed.
During the Reconstruction era in the late 1860s, African Americans began attending public schools in the United States; however, they were separate - or segregated - from other public schools.
By the 1950s, many public schools across the country had begun to desegregate as shown on this map:
Image by King_of_Hearts, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
While Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the idea that public facilities could be separate but equal, there was no federal law on the matter. This left the question of segregation up to the states.
As you can see, states in the South were still holding on to an increasingly out-of-date system.
- So if Plessy v. Ferguson upheld segregation, how did the Brown v. Board of Education decision alter the idea of "separate but equal"?
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1954, African American students attempted to enroll in the school closest to their home in Topeka, Kansas. They were all denied and forced to attend a school significantly further away that was predominantly African American.
The families of these children sued the Topeka Board of Education for discrimination on the basis of race.
- Do you remember under which amendment people of different races became protected by the Constitution?
It was in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment!
District Court Decision
Initially, the Board of Education of Topeka won this case because the lower-court judges followed the precedent set by Plessy v Ferguson.
Because the idea of "separate but equal" had been upheld for 50 years, lower courts were in no position to challenge the decision of the Supreme Court.
Having lost, the families appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which agreed to re-examine segregated public facilities.
(Check out our lesson under Additional Resources to learn more about how appeals work.)
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court is not a static branch of government. As justices retire and new justices are appointed, court policy can change.
Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, this Supreme Court decided not just to deliberate this case based purely on precedent but to consider what the authors of the 14th Amendment intended.
Review this excerpt from Section 1 of that amendment:
No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Proponents of segregation asserted that the writers of the 14th Amendment did not include the public school in their conception of "privileges or immunities of citizens" because widespread education had not existed in the 1860s beyond the wealthy class.
Warren accepted that those who wrote the amendment certainly would not have included public schools in their idea of privileges of citizens; however, Warren chose to translate the law into the contemporary situation with this question:
- How do you think the public school system was different from the 1860s and the 1950s?
Warren's answer was that education had become standardized and was "perhaps the most important function of our local and state governments."
Because education had become one of the most important factors in achieving a successful life, this Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that segregation in schools was inherently unconstitutional.
The decision ordered schools to desegregate with all deliberate speed.
This vague language in the court's decision caused the transition to desegregated schools to take several years. During this time, many states attempted to resist the overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson.
In 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, nine African American students were denied entrance to Little Rock Central High School.
The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, supported the high school's action and created a nationally publicized crisis.
Watch Arkansas National Guard Prevent School Desegregation - 1957 | Today in History | 4 Sept 16 from British Movietone:
- What did President Eisenhower do in response?
Sending 500 federal troops to enforce the school integration of nine students in one state was the first time the federal government had intervened to enforce a Supreme Court decision.
More so than the actual Brown v. Board of Education decision, this action in Little Rock expanded the federal government's authority into the arena of Civil Rights.
Continue on to the Got It? section to consider how resistance to this ruling occurred when there was no precedent to reject the decision of the Supreme Court.