Landmark Supreme Court Case: Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is the 99th landmark Supreme Court case, thirteenth in the Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Brown v Board of Education (1954)
For much of the sixty years preceding the case, race relations in the United States had been dominated by racial segregation. Such state policies had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the separate facilities for separate races were equal, state segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment (“no State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws”). Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 in which it was prohibited.
Beginning in the 1930s, a legal strategy was pursued, led by scholars at Howard University and activists at the NAACP, that sought to undermine state’s public education segregation by first focusing on the graduate school setting. This led to success in the cases of Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) suggesting that racial segregation was inherently unequal (at least in some settings).
Brown was influenced by UNESCO’s 1950 Statement, signed by a wide variety of internationally renowned scholars, titled The Race Question. This declaration denounced previous attempts at scientifically justifying racism as well as morally condemning racism. Another work that the Supreme Court cited was Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration.
The United States and the Soviet Union were both at the height of the Cold War during this time, and U.S. officials, including Supreme Court Justices, were highly aware of the harm that segregation and racism were doing to America’s international image. When Justice William O. Douglas traveled to India in 1950, the first question he was asked was, “Why does America tolerate the lynching of Negroes?” Douglas later wrote that he had learned from his travels that “the attitude of the United States toward its colored minorities is a powerful factor in our relations with India.” Chief Justice Earl Warren, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Eisenhower, echoed Douglas’s concerns in a 1954 speech to the American Bar Association, proclaiming that:
Our American system like all others is on trial both at home and abroad, … the extent to which we maintain the spirit of our constitution with its Bill of Rights, will in the long run do more to make it both secure and the object of adulation than the number of hydrogen bombs we stockpile.
The case originated in 1951 when the public school district in Topeka, Kansas, refused to enroll the daughter of local black resident Oliver Brown at the school closest to their home, instead requiring her to ride a bus to a segregated black elementary school farther away. This case was consolidated with cases arising in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington D.C. relating to the segregation of public schools on the basis of race.
In each of the cases, African American students had been denied admittance to certain public schools based on laws allowing public education to be segregated by race. They argued that such segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Kansas case was unique among the group in that there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools’ physical plant, curriculum, or staff as the district court found substantial equality as to all such factors.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy. The three-judge District Court panel found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect on negro children, but denied relief on the ground that the negro and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of teachers
Brown Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Does the segregation of public education based solely on race violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: Yes. Separate but equal educational facilities for racial minorities is inherently unequal violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Unanimous holding segregation of students in public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because separate facilities are inherently unequal. District Court of Kansas reversed. The decision’s 14 pages did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court’s second decision in Brown II (1955) only ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
The Court’s decision in Brown partially overruled Plessy (1896) by declaring that the “separate but equal” notion was unconstitutional for American public schools and educational facilities.] It paved the way for integration and was a major victory of the Civil Rights Movement, and a model for many future impact litigation cases.
In the Southern United States, especially the “Deep South,” where racial segregation was deeply entrenched, the reaction to Brown among most white people was “noisy and stubborn.” Many Southern governmental and political leaders embraced a plan known as “Massive Resistance,” created by Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, in order to frustrate attempts to force them to de-segregate their school systems. Four years later, in the case of Cooper v. Aaron, the Court reaffirmed its ruling in Brown, and explicitly stated that state officials and legislators had no power to nullify its ruling.
Many Northern cities also had de facto segregation policies, which resulted in a vast gulf in educational resources between black and white communities. In Harlem, New York, for example, not a single new school had been built since the turn of the century, nor did a single nursery school exist, even as the Second Great Migration caused overcrowding of existing schools. Existing schools tended to be dilapidated and staffed with inexperienced teachers.
Northern officials were in denial of the segregation, but Brown helped stimulate activism among African-American parents like Mae Mallory who, with support of the NAACP, initiated a successful lawsuit against the city and State of New York on Brown’s principles. Mallory and thousands of other parents bolstered the pressure of the lawsuit with a school boycott in 1959. During the boycott, some of the first freedom schools of the period were established. The city responded to the campaign by permitting more open transfers to high-quality, historically-white schools. (New York’s African-American community, and Northern desegregation activists generally, now found themselves contending with the problem of white flight, however.
Next Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality Case: Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)
Previous Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality Case: Sweatt v. Painter (1950)
Previous Case: U.S. v. Kahriger (1953)