Brown v. Board of Education
"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms."
- Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
On May 17, 1954, the Court unanimously ruled that "separate but equal" public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The Brown case served as a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement, inspiring education reform everywhere and forming the legal means of challenging segregation in all areas of society.
After Brown, the nation made great strides toward opening the doors of education to all students. With court orders and active enforcement of federal civil rights laws, progress toward integrated schools continued through the late 1980s. Since then, many states have been resegregating and educational achievement and opportunity have been falling for minorities.
Brown History and Background
Brown v. Board of Education was actually a consolidation of cases from five jurisdictions:
- Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas)
- Briggs v. Elliot (South Carolina)
- Bulah v. Gebhart and Belton v. Gebhart (Delaware)
- Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Virginia)
- Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia)
The cases were combined because they all sought desegregation of schools as the remedy for grossly inadequate conditions in segregated black schools.
The Supreme Court's Brown decision was particularly important because it was not based on the gross inequalities in facilities and other tangible factors that characterized previous desegregation cases. In Brown, the Court dealt directly with segregation and ruled that even if tangible factors like facilities, teachers and supplies were equal, separation itself was inherently unequal and a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. With Brown, the Court effectively overturned the infamous 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson which had permitted racial segregation under the guise of "separate but equal."
The unanimous Court wrote that a quality education was crucial for all children and ruled that it was the state's responsibility to ensure educational equality:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
The Court also noted that segregation has a detrimental effect upon children of color and that the impact is more profound when it has the sanction of the law. To reach this conclusion, the Court made the unusual decision to rely on social science more than legal precedent. In its arguments and brief, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had provided the testimony of more than 30 social scientists affirming the harmful effects of segregation on blacks and whites.
About the Brown Decision
- U.S. Supreme Court's Brown decision (National Center for Public Policy Research)
- Court cases that preceded Brown
- Other desegregation cases
- Landmark Supreme Court Cases
- Teaching With Documents: Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education (National Archives) - The Brown v. Board lesson plan uses archived historical material to help tell the story. Additionally, check out their timeline of events that led up the historical decision.
- Brown v. Board Resources (Montgomery County Public Schools) - Take a look at this Maryland school district's year-long celebration for ideas you can use in your own school community. Montgomery County wants to make sure all its students have the intercultural and civic knowledge needed in our diverse society to achieve equity and justice for everyone.
Exploring the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education in Contemporary Times (Anti-Defamation League)
- In Pursuit of Freedom and Equality (Brown v. Board 50th Anniversary Coalition) - An electronic exhibit on Kansas and the African American Public School Experience, 1855-1955.
- We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement (National Park Service) - Discusses the importance of Monroe School as a national historical site.
- Student Activity Booklet - You'll find a 'court maze' and a Brown-related word search among the fun things in this online guide.
- "Looking Back: Brown v. Board of Education" (National Public Radio) - Radio programs celebrating the landmark decision.
- The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS) - The site covers the entirety of civil rights history, from emancipation onward, with the Brown decision included in a section called "Events." Other sections include Introduction, People, Narratives, and Organizations. Each section has several pages and each page includes a description of the topic, side facts and occasional audio features.
- With All Deliberate Speed: The Legacy of Brown v. Board - A documentary commemorating Brown that examines the unique legal strategies employed by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., to combat school segregation in the courts, uncover the split public sentiment that fueled the social structure of the "Jim Crow" era, address the successes and failures in the implementation of desegregation, and most importantly, analyze the role of diversity and multicultural education in America today.
- Brown V. Board of Education 50th Anniversary (McGraw-Hill) - This site is an interactive environment where visitors can explore a variety of media including video, photographs, historical background, and other web sites.
- Michigan 1954 from Dialogues on Diversity (mov)
- National Archives - This site provides digital images of important historical documents.
- Our Documents (National Archives) - An excellent interactive learning site.
- Brown v. Board of Education Digital Archive (University of Michigan) - Site includes a few links to other archives, image gallery, oral arguments, and description of local events.
Resources and Articles
- Fifty Years Later, the Brown Sisters Look Back - The Leadership Conference Education Fund - 03/15/04
- New Education Project and Website Focus on 'Brown' and Beyond - The Leadership Conference Education Fund - 05/12/04
- In Depth: Brown v. Board (The Topeka Capital-Journal) - Site includes extensive coverage of Brown's history and legacy. The site also includes links to news stories from the 1950s.
- NEA Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (National Education Association) - Site includes classroom materials for teachers, timeline, case overview, future of school desegregation analysis, and upcoming events.
- Board of Education into the Classroom (American Federation of Teachers) - Site includes a history section, suggested reading for different age levels, curriculum for teachers, and a "where we are today" section.
- Education Life (New York Times) - Originally published on January 18, 2004, the site features several stories relating to the anniversary. Titles include: "The Supreme Struggle", "Poetic Justice", "The Reluctant Icons", "Brown's Children's Children", and "When Busing Ends."
- Brown v. Board of Education Fiftieth Anniversary Commission (Institute for Public Service Policy Research at University of South Carolina) - This two-year project marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court abolishing segregation in public schools. The project will culminate in the publication of a series of papers published by the Institute on May 17, 2004, examining the status of African Americans and race relations in South Carolina and making public policy recommendations for eliminating the vestiges of segregation which linger in various aspects of current life in the state.
- Brown v Board of Education Resource Guide (University of Central Florida) - Resource website containing important information for finding books, articles, internet sites, and videos on Brown v. Board of Education.
- BrownvBoard.org (Washburn University School of Law) - This site has a background summary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision as well as an electronic exhibit of Kansas and the African American Public School Experience from 1855 to 1955.