Brown v. Board of Education

The United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 ( 1954 ), signaled America's definitive emergence, at least on a legal plane, from an entrenched system of racial segregation. So-called Jim Crow laws and customs, occurring mainly but not exclusively in the South, prohibited racial integration in almost all realms, from marriage, public schools, and professional sports to cemeteries and swimming pools. Brown focused on public schools, ruling on claims of violation of the constitutional rights of schoolchildren in four states and the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall, heading a legal team from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although the case had its limits in regard to the extent, and timing, of the concrete changes it engendered, its significant, lasting power is in the articulation of an interpretation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution that simply and emphatically bans state-mandated separation by race.

The unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and announced on May 17, 1954, declared racially segregated schools inherently unequal, thus overruling the long-standing precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 ( 1896 ), which had declared separate but equal facilities constitutionally acceptable. In Brown the Court relied on objective evidence of a lower quality of schools for black children as well as on social science research showing the detrimental psychological and sociological impacts of the separation itself, which appeared to foster assumptions of the general superiority of whites. The decision held implications for all forms of state-mandated racial segregation, but its immediate effect was on the twenty-one states that either mandated or allowed separate schools. It left the question of implementation for a second hearing later that year, inviting the US attorney general and various state attorneys general to submit their recommendations in the meantime.

Thus there were two Brown decisions, commonly referred to as Brown I and Brown II. The latter, announced on May 31, 1955, is typically portrayed as the antidote to the sweeping proclamation of the first decision, a capitulation in part to the firestorm of opposition and recalcitrance it triggered. Yet, as James Patterson observes in his 2001 book on the case and its legacy, ​Brown II likely further infuriated southern whites already angered by the first decision. This follow-up opinion stated that compliance was to be done “with all deliberate speed,” emphasizing that, though states and schools districts would be expected to move immediately toward desegregation, progress might be plausibly delayed by various local conditions, such as the need to construct new schools, or to develop new policies and procedures.

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