We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Chief Justice Earl Warren for the Court.
Often required by law, school segregation was a way of life during the Fifties. There were schools for white kids and usually inferior schools for black kids. This had remained uncontested under an 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” precedent in a transportation case.
In Topeka, Kansas, black third grader Linda Brown had to walk one mile through a railroad switchyard and across a busy street because she had been denied admission to the much closer white school. Oliver Brown, her father, went to McKinley Burnett, the head of Topeka’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and asked for help. The NAACP was eager to assist the Browns, as it had long wanted to challenge segregation in public schools.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas heard Brown’s case in 1951. The Board of Education actually argued that, because segregation in Topeka and elsewhere pervaded many other aspects of life, segregated schools simply prepared black children for the segregation they would face during adulthood.
Although the District Court agreed with witnesses for the NAACP, they felt their hands were tied by Plessy v. Ferguson, and so ruled for the Board of Education.
Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was combined with others that challenged school segregation in South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. However, the case was named after the Kansas case to show that the issue was not unique to the South.
For the NAACP, special counsel Thurgood Marshall argued that equal had to be a state of mind. Even where segregated schools could prove equal classrooms, teachers, and facilities, segregation was unconstitutional because it stigmatized black children, thereby denying them the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The very nature of segregation caused black children to feel inferior, which clearly wasn’t conducive to learning.
The Court agreed and ruled for Oliver Brown. Although it would be some time before segregation ended in practice, Brown V. Board of Education made unconsitutional those state laws mandating it and set the legal foundation for challenges to segregation across America.