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Even though this case is always said as Brown vs. Board of Education, the real title is Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. That would make one think that this case was about one person vs. the Topeka Kansas Board of Education, but this case was actually about several families in 4 states and the District of Columbia all challenging that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment, which required separate but equal education.
Students were separate but the families argued that their education was certainly not equal. These cases did not win in the lower courts and all went to the Supreme Court. When Brown’s case and four other cases related to school segregation first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court put all of them into one case and named it Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
In 1951, Mr. Oliver Brown argued in Kansas court that his African American 3rd grade daughter was not being treated equal to white school children. His biggest argument had to do with the distance his daughter had to travel to school more than the quality of her education.
He claimed that school segregation was unconstitutional because his daughter had to walk a significant distance just to catch a bus and ride to a school that was much further away from her house than a white school that was only 7 blocks from her home. He noted that this went against the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause. Kansas agreed that segregation was detrimental to African American students but they upheld the separate but equal clause and found in favor of the Board of Education. To truly understand how Mr. Oliver Brown was able to get the Supreme Court to hear this case, we really have to look back six decades earlier to the 1896 supreme court case, Plessy vs. Ferguson. In that case, the supreme court said that laws banning African Americans from sharing the same transportation and other public places as whites were constitutional as long as the places were separate but equal.
These laws were known as “Jim Crow” laws and the “separate but equal” doctrine stood for the next 60 years until Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka. Fast forward to the early 1950’s when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began challenging segregation in America and decided to argue the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Mr. Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. He was so highly regarded that 13 years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as the first African American justice on the United States Supreme Court.
When the Supreme Court heard the case, the nine all white, all male justices were divided on how to rule on school segregation but Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson held the opinion that the Plessy verdict which supported segregation should stand. But in late 1953, an unexpected turn of events occured and Vinson died before the case was ever decided on. President Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced him with Earl Warren, which proved to not only change the potential outcome of this case, but literally started a civil rights movement in our country.
Chief Justice Warren had a completely different opinion from Vinson and was able to succeed in engineering a unanimous verdict against school segregation the following year. In his decision, Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” As a result, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”. This decision had results that impacted so much more than school segregation; this case helped inspire the civil rights movement of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. A year after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery Alabama.
Although she was arrested, her quiet and civil disobedience let to a boycott of the public transportation in Montgomery for 381 days. The boycott ultimately led the supreme court to outlaw racial segregation on public buses and led to even more cases that eventually overturned the Jim Crow laws in America. One of the biggest things it did was catapult a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the civil rights movement.
The movement led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To this day, many consider this the greatest social revolution in American History and it all began with Brown vs. Board of Education when our Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregation of public schools violated the 14th amendment and was unconstitutional.
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