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On This Day: Supreme Court Ends School Segregation

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal.

Brown Litigation Ends Segregation in American Schools

Overturning nearly 60 years of state-sanctioned educational segregation, the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overruled the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that government-controlled institutions could be “separate but equal,” History Matters reported.

The suit’s named plaintiff was Linda Brown, a seven-year-old from Topeka, Kansas. To reach the nearest school designated for African-American students, she had to walk 21 blocks, then take a mile-long bus ride. After learning that a “whites-only” school was located just seven blocks from their home, Brown’s father protested.

Joined by several other families, Brown filed suit against the local school board. According to the National Center, the federal district court ruled against the Browns, and the family’s appeal to the Supreme Court was combined with similar cases filed in four different states with more than 200 plaintiffs.

NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice himself, argued the case for the plaintiffs, the New York Times reported.

Contrary to popular belief, the Brown plaintiffs did not argue that the black students’ separate facilities were inferior, though some of the individual cases did involve that charge. Instead, Marshall called child psychologists and other experts to show that dividing children by race was “inherently unequal.”

The ruling strengthened the growing civil rights movement, and helped to remove the “separate but equal” doctrine from all facets of public life in America.

Historical Context: A divided country

Sources in this Story

  • History Matters: The Plessy v. Ferguson Case
  • The National Center: Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (USSC+)
  • The New York Times: Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 84
  • National Geographic: Charles Houston: The Man Who Killed “Jim Crow”
  • NPR: brown. v. board of education
  • Time: The Tension of Change
  • The Eisenhower Archives
  • National Park Service: Brown v. Board of Education
  • CBS: 50 Years Later: A Promise Not Kept

Thurgood Marshall is often cited as the motivation behind the Brown case, however, Charles Hamilton Houston actually pioneered the idea of taking on segregation through the nation’s courts. According to National Geographic, Houston worked with the NAACP as early as 1934 and suggested the organization take on “separate but equal” through the education system. Houston passed away two years before Brown reached the Supreme Court.

Ultimately decided in a unanimous 9-0 ruling under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown was the third such case brought in Topeka, according to National Public Radio. A year after the ruling, a cover story in Time magazine captured the divisive environment Marshall and the NAACP faced when bringing Brown to the Supreme Court. In the article, Marshall spoke in awe of his clients’ fortitude: “There isn’t a threat known to men that they do not receive… I don’t think I could take it for a week.”

Later Developments: Resistance to the decision, Linda Brown’s school becomes a historic site

Accepted with relative ease in Topeka, articles and correspondence from the Eisenhower Archives document ways in which the ruling triggered much greater resistance in other parts of the country, most notably in Little Rock, Ark. In an effort to integrate a high school, President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to order the National Guard, supported by 100 paratroopers, to protect the nine African-American students who were trying to attend school in 1957.

According to the National Park Service, Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas, where Linda Brown attended school after her long walk, has since been turned into a national historic site that celebrates the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Opinion and Analysis: Did the case have lasting impact?

On the 50th anniversary of the ruling, CBS wrote, “In spite of the ruling, segregation still is a fact in America. It is an economic fact. It is a social fact.”

Reference: Local news coverage of the case, resources for teachers

The Topeka Capital Journal provides an interactive map of the events and figures involved in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, though only those who lived in the town. The Supreme Court appeal combined five different lawsuits spread across four states. The paper also provides images of the local front page from the day of the decision.

Source: The Topeka Capital Journal

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For teachers

The Smithsonian Institute hosts a selection of educational resources for teachers to mark the historic Supreme Court decision, including a teacher’s guide to the ruling, lesson plans, links and other resources.

Source: The Smithsonian Institute

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“Through My Eyes” is an autobiographical account by Ruby Bridges, for readers age six through young adult, of her experiences as the first black student to attend the formerly all-white William Frantz Public School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Illustrated with many contemporary photographs and containing commentaries by teachers, lawyers and others involved in the events, the book recounts Bridges’ experiences as a first grader, beginning with her arrival at school on November 14, 1960, protected by federal marshals and surrounded by hostile crowds.

Source: Dulcinea Media Store

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Use “On This Day” in your classroom. Download a printable student worksheet.

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