Case Summary

May 16, 2004

The suit

Though universally known as Brown vs. Board of Education, the case was five separate suits challenging segregation - from South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the Brown case in Kansas that the Supreme Court ordered argued together.

In many ways, Briggs vs. Elliott, the case filed by Thurgood Marshall from Clarendon County, South Carolina, which began when black parents sought school buses for their children, was the most representative, but Brown was listed first, so the Topeka, Kan., case has always been in the spotlight.

The background

Court challenges to racial segregation were almost as old as segregation itself. Few had been successful.

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that blacks could be required to ride in separate railway cars as long as "separate but equal" accommodations were available.

Combined with decisions giving localities control of education, this formed the legal foundation for segregated schools. In the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began to attack this decision in a vulnerable spot - graduate schools.

Few states were willing to fund such expensive "separate but equal" facilities for blacks, so NAACP attorneys undermined Plessy vs. Ferguson as they gained entrance and equal treatment of blacks, especially to law schools, institutions well-understood by the judges hearing their arguments.

By the late 1940s, the stage was set to begin the assault on segregated elementary and secondary education.

The decision

The unanimous Brown vs. Board of Education decision found that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, saying that Plessy vs. Ferguson's "separate but equal" standard "has no place in the field of public education" because "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Because of the unique status of the District of Columbia, school segregation there was outlawed on the basis of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The result

The 1954 decision destroyed a cornerstone of the Jim Crow system of American apartheid. The massive resistance to the decision throughout the South set the stage for the growth of the civil rights movement and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which assured blacks the right to vote.

Brown vs. Board of Education is also blamed for spurring white flight from black-dominated urban areas across the country. Courts have spent decades dealing with ramifications of the ruling, including school busing and districting disputes, and the current fights over affirmative action in admissions policies.

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