Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
School segregation: separate is not equal
Decision Date: May 17, 1954
Background: In the 1950s segregation laws in many states prohibited African American children and white children from attending the same schools. Linda Brown, an African American girl, could not attend a less-crowded white school a few blocks from her home in Topeka, Kan. Instead, she had to ride a bus across town to attend an African American school. In 1951, Linda Brown’s father and several parents from her school filed suit against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. He argued that separate schools were unconstitutional because they violated equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court ruled in favor of the Board of Education citing the “separate but equal” precedent established by the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. The Brown case, along with four other similar segregation cases, was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney, argued the case before the Court.
Decision: The Supreme Court first heard arguments for the case in December 1952. Because of its controversial nature and anticipated resistance from southern states, no decision was reached. During the Court’s recess, Chief Justice Vinson died and Chief Justice Warren was appointed. In December 1953, the Court heard the case again and on May 17, 1954, unanimously ruled segregation unconstitutional. The Court said “separate is not equal,” and segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.