Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Historical Background

Perhaps no other case decided by the Court in the 20th century has had so profound an effect on the social fabric of America as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. By the end of World War II, dramatic changes in American race relations were already underway. The integration of labor unions in the 1930s under the eye of the Fair Employment Practices Commission and the desegregation of the armed forces by President Truman in 1948 marked major steps toward racial integration.

The legal framework on which segregation rested-formally established in 1896 by the Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision-was itself being dismantled. Challenged repeatedly by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the doctrine of “separate but equal“ was beginning to crack. Beginning in 1938, the Supreme Court had, in a number of cases, struck down laws where segregated facilities proved to be “demonstrably unequal.“ The Court ordered the law schools at the University of Missouri and the University of Texas to be integrated in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 1938, and Sweatt v. Painter, 1950. Neither case had made the frontal assault needed to overturn the Plessy standard. However, the 1950s brought a new wave of challenges to official segregation by the NAACP and other groups.

Circumstances of the Case

Linda Brown, an eight-year-old African-American girl, had been denied permission to attend an elementary school only five blocks from her home in Topeka, Kansas. School officials refused to register her at the nearby school, assigning her instead to a school for nonwhite students some 21 blocks from her home. Separate elementary schools for whites and nonwhites were maintained by the Board of Education in Topeka. Linda Brown's parents filed a lawsuit to force the schools to admit her to the nearby, but segregated, school for white students.

Constitutional Issues

The central question addressed to the Court involved the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children…of equal educational opportunities?“ In short, the Court was asked to determine whether the segregation of schools was at all constitutional.


For Linda Brown: Led by Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP litigator who would be appointed to the Court in 1967, Brown's attorneys argued that the operation of separate schools, based on race, was harmful to African-American children. Extensive testimony was provided to support the contention that legal segregation resulted in both fundamentally unequal education and low self-esteem among minority students. The Brown family lawyers argued that segregation by law implied that African Americans were inherently inferior to whites. For these reasons they asked the Court to strike down segregation under the law.

For the Board of Education: Attorneys for Topeka argued that the separate schools for nonwhites in Topeka were equal in every way, and were in complete conformity with the Plessy standard. Buildings, the courses of study offered, and the quality of teachers were completely comparable. In fact, because some federal funds for Native Americans only applied at the nonwhite schools, some programs for minority children were actually better than those offered at the schools for whites. They pointed to the Plessy decision of 1896 to support segregation and argued that they had in good faith created “equal facilities,“ even though races were segregated. Furthermore, they argued, discrimination by race did not harm children.

Decision and Rationale

For a unanimous Court (9-0), Chief Justice Warren wrote in his first and probably most significant decision, “[S]egregation [in public education] is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.“ Accepting the arguments put forward by the plaintiffs, Warren declared: “To separate [some children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.“

The Court quoted the Kansas court, which had held that “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school….“

Summing up, Warren wrote: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal…. segregation [in public education] is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.“

The Brown decision did more than reverse the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal.“ It reversed centuries of segregationist practice and thought in America. For that reason, the Brown decision is seen as a transforming event-the birth of a political and social revolution. In a later case called Brown II (Warren had suggested two decisions-the first dealing with the constitutionality of segregation and the second with the implementation of the decision), the Court directed an end to school segregation by race “with all deliberate speed.“ The Brown decision became the cornerstone of the social justice movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It finally brought the spirit of the 14th Amendment into practice, more than three-quarters of a century after that amendment had been passed.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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