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Today, most students in American schools don’t have to think twice about sharing a carpet, drinking fountain, or bathroom with their classmate of a different race. However, this was not always the case. As recently as the 1950’s, students were segregated based on skin color under the Jim Crow Laws. This meant that African-American students had to sit in the back of the bus, and give up their seat to a white student if requested. It also meant that white and black students would never share the same restroom, playground equipment, lunch table or even the same physical school building. Although the practice of segregating schools was finally abolished in 1954, racial minorities faced many frustrating and unfair discriminatory practices up until that point that set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement to follow.
“Separate but equal” was the justification made under a legal doctrine in United States constitutional law for people of color to be treated differently than their Caucasian counterparts. The doctrine upheld that as long as equal access to the same facilities and opportunities were provided to people of color, that they could receive these services and opportunities separately from their white peers. While this may have seemed like a fair accommodation to the government at this time, many of the facilities and opportunities – especially in education – were not, in fact, equal. They were usually not even close to being equal, and often times did not exist whatsoever. While white schools received ample government funding, finer infrastructure, and school supplies, black education was often provided in churches or small shacks with no furniture, restrooms, or even chalkboards (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, n.d.). The laws that allowed for the segregation of blacks and whites became known as the “Jim Crow laws.”
The Jim Crow laws were essentially laws at the local level (including state laws) that allowed and required the segregation of whites and people of color. These laws not only allowed for the segregation of schools – but also for train cabins, buses, housing units, restaurants, drinking fountains, restrooms, motels, theaters, and financial institutions (lending practices were different for blacks and whites). The laws also allowed for unfair treatment by labor unions and discriminatory hiring practices. Federal work environments even became segregated by race in 1913, due to a ruling by President Woodrow Wilson. In a way, the Black Codes from the 1860’s were being revived through the Jim Crow laws (United States Courts, n.d.).
As a result of the battle for equality that people of color were facing, a new legal battle came to light: Plessy vs. Ferguson. Homer Plessy was only 1/8th African-American and had a fair complexion, so in 1892, he decided to buy a first class train ticket from Louisiana and joined the whites-only cabin. Upon doing so, he informed the conductor of his racial background, and the conductor required him to give up his seat in first class to move to the separate cabin for blacks. When Homer refused to do so, he was arrested. He decided to fight his case in court, claiming that separating whites and blacks on the train violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which promised “equal protection under the law.” The case became so large and controversial that it had made it to the Supreme Court by 1896. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Homer Plessy. Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing the majority opinion, stated that:
“The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality. . . If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane” (United States Courts, n.d.). This was a major setback for the African-American community, but the anger and frustration with unequal treatment continued to build momentum for the Civil Rights Movement that would sweep the nation throughout the 1950’s and even into the 1970’s.
As a result of the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, the Jim Crow laws remained in place, along with other more informal discrimination based on race. However, African-Americans continued to press forward in their fight for equality. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which formed in 1909, began lobbying to Congress for desegregation. They also fought many high-profile racial discrimination cases in court on behalf of the wronged – including Murray v. Maryland, where black applicants to the University of Maryland’s law school were being rejected based on race alone; and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education, where African-American doctoral student George McLaurin was being required to sit, eat and study separately from the rest of his white peers. Eventually, in 1954, the NAACP fought the landmark case known as Brown v. Board of Education. This case was actually made up of five separate school discrimination cases that eventually made their way to the Supreme Court for the appeals process: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.), Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel (United States Courts, n.d.).
Each of the five cases mentioned were all in regards to state-sponsored segregation in schools. Each time the cases were tried, the panel of judges ruled in favor of the school board, citing the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1952, when the cases finally reached the Supreme Court, they were consolidated into one case known as Brown v. Board of Education. Each time, the main point argued by the NAACP was that while the Fourteenth Amendment did provide for equal protections, people of color were not receiving equal accommodations and facilities, despite being separate from what Caucasians had. Additionally, the quality of education being provided at black schools was incredibly poor – they lacked infrastructure, desks, blackboards, and even books in many schools. Teachers were also of much poorer quality in the black schools. Many colored students, who were already at a disadvantage in the job market, were also graduating illiterate and unprepared for the real world. Although the Supreme Court Justices were at odds over the issue, often having polar opposite opinions, Chief Justice Warren was able to work with the other Justices to come to a unanimous decision. In May of 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. He stated, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . .” (United States Courts, n.d.).
Although students of all races were now able to intermingle on school property, the battle for civil rights was just beginning. The Brown v. Board of Education case was a huge victory for the African-American community, black education, and equal rights as a whole. However, it would take over ten years for the equality and rights of African-Americans to be recognized fully by the government and the general public.
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