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Brown v. Board of Education: 1954

Naacp Takes On Topeka Board Of Education

Burnett's organization had wanted to challenge segregation for quite some time, but until Brown came to them they had never had the right plaintiff at the right time. Segregation, in the public schools and elsewhere, was a fact of life in Topeka as in so many other places and few were willing to challenge it. Now that he had Brown, who was joined by several other black parents in Topeka with children in blacks-only public schools, Burnett and the NAACP decided that the time was ripe for legal action.

On March 22, 1951, Brown's NAACP lawyers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, requesting an injunction forbidding Topeka from continuing to segregate its public schools. The court tried the case June 25-26, 1951. Brown and the other black parents testified to the fact that their children were denied admission to white schools. One parent, Silas Fleming, explained why he and the other parents wanted to get their children into the white schools:

It wasn't to cast any insinuations that our teachers are not capable of teaching our children because they are supreme, extremely intelligent and are capable of teaching my kids or white kids or black kids. But my point was that not only I and my children are craving light: the entire colored race is craving light, and the only way to reach the light is to start our children together in their infancy and they come up together.

Next, the court listened to expert witnesses who testified that segregated schools were inherently unequal because separation sent a message to black children that they were inferior. This stigma could never be eliminated from a segregated school system, as Dr. Hugh W. Speer, chairman of the University of Kansas City's department of elementary school education, testified:

For example, if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represent 90 percent of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child's curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation.

The Board of Education's lawyers retorted that since most restaurants, bathrooms and public facilities in Kansas City also were segregated, segregated schools were only preparing black children for the realities of life as black adults. Segregation pervaded every aspect of life in Topeka as in so many other places, and it was beyond the court's jurisdiction to act on anything in this one lawsuit but the legality of school segregation. The board's argument did not convince the judges. The board was assuming that segregation was a natural and desirable way of life for the races to live.

Next, the board argued that segregated schools did not necessarily result in any detrimental effect. After all, hadn't Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver, among other great African-Americans, achieved so much in the face of obstacles far worse than segregated educational facilities? The fallacy in this argument was obvious, however. While some exceptional people were capable of rising above any adversity, for the majority of African-Americans the discriminatory effect of segregation meant a lessening of opportunities. Dr. Horace B. English, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, testified:

There is a tendency for us to live up to, or perhaps I should say down to, social expectations and to learn what people say we can learn, and legal segregation definitely depresses the Negro's expectancy and is therefore prejudicial to his learning.

On August 3, 1951, the court issued its decision. The three judges noted that the leading Supreme Court opinion on public school segregation was the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. (See separate entry.) Plessy legitimized the doctrine of "separate but equal" school systems for blacks and whites, and Plessy had not been overturned by the Supreme Court or even seriously questioned, despite some nibbling away at the doctrine's edges in a few recent cases. Therefore, regardless of the experts' testimony that separate-but-equal schools were inherently impossible, the court felt compelled to deny Brown and the other plaintiffs their request for an injunction. The court made it clear, however, that it did not relish its role in upholding Topeka's segregation:

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 system.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Brown v. Board of Education: 1954 - Naacp Takes On Topeka Board Of Education, Fight Goes To Supreme Court, Court Throws Out Plessy; Declares Segregation Illegal