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Brown v. Board of Education: 1954

Court Throws Out Plessy; Declares Segregation Illegal

After the December 8, 1953, re-argument, the Court announced its decision on May 17, 1954. According to the published opinion, the re-argument had not revealed anything that shed light on whether the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment had been specifically intended to preclude segregated schools:

Even in the North, the conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states; and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on public education.

Instead, the Court endorsed the plaintiffs' central thesis that segregation was inherently unequal no matter how much effort the school system made to ensure that black and white schools had equivalent facilities, staffing, books, buses, and so forth. The Court reviewed some recent cases in which it had cautiously made an exception to Plessy where certain graduate schools were involved. In those cases, the Court said that segregation was unequal because the blacks' professional careers were hurt by the stigma of having attended schools considered to be inferior, and where they did not have the opportunity to make contacts or have intellectual discourse with their white counterparts. With this support, the Court was ready to declare that all segregation in public schools was unconstitutional:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

After nearly 60 years of legalized discrimination, the Court had thrown out Plessy v. Ferguson. It would take 20 years for the Court's decision to be fully implemented, however, long after Oliver Brown died in 1961. In 1955, the Court said that all American school systems must desegregate "with all deliberate speed," but most local schools in the South did nothing until they were brought to court one by one. The process dragged on throughout the rest of the 1950s, during the '60s, and into the early '70s. Meanwhile, particularly during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Court acted to strike down all the other forms of legal segregation in American society, from bus stations and public libraries to restrooms.

The process was painful and often violent, frequently accompanied by federal intervention and mass demonstrations. By the 1970s, however, legal desegregation was a fact. Brown v. Board of Education not only made it possible to demolish segregated public school systems, but it was the landmark that served as a catalyst for further antidiscrimination decision by the Supreme Court.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

"The Day Race Relations Changed Forever: U.S. Supreme Court Desegregation Decision of May17, 1954 Was Hailed by Many as the 'Second Emancipation Proclamation.'" Ebony (May 1985): 108-112.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: the History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Orlich, Donald C. "Brown v. Board of Education: Time for a Reassessment." Phi Delta Kappan (April1991): 631-632.

Sudo, Phil. "Five Little People Who Changed U.S. History." Scholastic Update (January 1990): 8-10.

White, Jack E. "The Heirs of Oliver Brown." Time (July 6, 1987): 88-89.

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