Understanding of Brown V. Board of Education

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The Civil War (1861-1865) resulted in the freeing of nearly 4 million slaves but brought forth a whole new set of problems in terms of conducting the restoration and reintegration of the South. In the middle of the war, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), declaring that all slaves, but only in states that had separated from the Union, are, and henceforth shall be free (The Emancipation Proclamation). Though it did not free all slaves, it verbalized that the fight for a nation had became a fight for freedom. Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln proposed the Ten-Percent Plan in which he asked that at least 10% of state’s voters swear to uphold the Constitution. This would pardon all but the highest officers in the Confederate army. All rights of citizenship, except the right to own slaves, would be restored. If the necessary number of voters swore, the state would be be readmitted to the Union and able to form its own government (Ladenburg 8). Before the Civil War, segregation laws, especially in the South, were unopposed. Racial segregation extended to schools, restaurants, restroom, public transportation, and more (Documents Related).

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The period after the Civil War came to be known as the Era of Reconstruction. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in December of 1865, truly abolished slavery and granted slaves the freedoms they had been previous denied (Greene). But they still faced the remains of segregation within society. President Lincoln’s goal was to abolish these social, political, and economic practices. Even before the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was theorizing the most effective ways in which to restore the South (Reconstruction 1). Many considered his idea far too sympathetic.

The era following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, became known as Presidential Reconstruction under the presidency of Andrew Johnson. Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction was not lenient in comparison to Johnson’s. Johnson began by pardoning all Southern whites, excluding Confederate officers (who were eventually pardoned), and restoring their rights, including their right to hold office. Aside from enforcing the abolition of slavery, states were left to their own affairs (Foner). Many states immediately instituted a number of laws that would once again restrict the freedoms of black people, known as the Black Codes.

        President Johnson was sympathetic with the South. With the passing of the Black Codes, racial segregation, under Southern government, practically became legal (Documents Related). The founding of the Klu Klux Klan soon followed. Lynchings of black people, used as a form of intimidation, became more frequent. Lynching empowered the mobs, providing them with control equivalent to that of the law (New York Historical Society, Lynchings 44). Poll taxes, sharecropping, literacy tests, and the Grandfather Clause were just some of the various forms of disenfranchisement of black people, enacted to maintain white power. Southerners, in defense of these codes, claimed they were necessary to keep order in the South and to help the freedmen make the difficult adjustment from slavery to freedom (Ladenburg 4). Northerners argued that it was another form of slavery, simply under a different name.

The majority of Congress was in support of black rights (New York Historical Society, Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow 8) and did everything in their power to support the Civil Rights Movement, mainly by passing a series of laws. In 1868, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and due process of the law to all persons born or naturalized in the United States (New York Historical Society, Citizenship 68). For the first time ever, African Americans and former slaves were considered citizens. It was also the first direct mention of slavery in the Constitution (National Constitution Center, 14th). The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified by Congress in 1870, stated that the right to vote cannot be denied or abridged based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (National Constitution Center, 15th). States could not deny citizenship to any American-born people. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were all established to protect the rights of freed-people in an effort to completely eradicate slavery.

In 1875, Congress passed that Civil Rights Act which guaranteed equality of all men before the law, making it illegal and punishable by fine to discriminate in public places and facilities or deny service based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (Urofsky). However, in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court, found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Cases was one court case that was a consolidation of five cases, all of which involved a black person being refused the same accommodations as a white person in hotels, theatres, and railroads, which they argued violated their rights described in the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court, in disagreement, ruled that Congress alone does not have the power to ratify new laws, only to amend ones that are found to be unconstitutional (Civil Rights Cases). In addition, the 14th Amendment authorized the federal government to prohibit discrimination on a state level but this power did not extend to private associations. And the Thirteenth Amendment, they ruled, prohibits slavery, not other forms of discrimination. The ruling of the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 was foretelling of the Supreme Court’s future decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. 

Homer Plessy, a black man, challenged the constitutionality of segregated railroad coaches, first in Louisiana state court and then in Supreme Court. He claimed that his arrest was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits unreasonable discrimination of a law that treat people differently (Monk 224). The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of public facilities, if equal in quality, was not a violation of the clause, upholding separate but equal tenet, maintaining the constitutionality, legitimizing racial segregation, supporting the use of Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws consisted of previously informal separate but equal rules that essentially applied to every aspect of public life.  Plessy v. Ferguson was a blow against the struggle for racial integration.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was officially founded in 1909. Their primary goals were to obtain fair trials for black people and to reduce and eliminate lynchings. By the 1930s, they began to focus on complete integration in society. And by the 1950s, they began to support challenges of segregation in schools (Documents Related). The case of Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of major racial integration efforts and further propelled the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement

The Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 Supreme Court case was a case that challenged the constitutionality of segregated schools. The plaintiffs claimed the segregated schools denied equal opportunities and protection of the law. Oliver Brown, father of Linda Brown, filed a class-action suit on the behalf of thirteen other parents against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1951 (Brown v. Board). The District Court ruled in favor of the school board. Referring back to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, they ruled that segregated facilities, if equal in quality and service, do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Unsatisfied, the NAACP appealed to the Supreme Court.

En route to Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 1952 was combined with Briggs v. Elliott (1950), Davis v. County School Board (1951), Gebhart v. Belton (1952), and Bolling v. Sharpe (1950), all from different states: South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. Though different in detail, they all collectively argued against the constitutionality of the segregation of schools. The five cases were on the behalf of black students, all of whom were denied entry to all-white schools. Collectively, the cases demonstrated that the unconstitutionality of separate but equal was not a small-scale issue, it was national. In each of the cases, except for the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims that segregation denied equal protection of the law described in the Fourteenth Amendment on the doctrine of separate but equal. The Delaware case differed from the others in that though the district court upheld the separate but equal doctrine, they also ruled that all of the plaintiffs be permitted to attend the white schools, seeing as they were, in fact, of higher quality (Brown v. Board. It was the only case of the four that received relief at the state level (Belton v. Gebhart).

        The five cases appeared, consolidated, before the Supreme Court under the name Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas et al.. Advocating in defense of segregation were John Davis, James Lindsay Almond Jr., Paul E. Wilson, and H. Albert young. The advocates for the plaintiffs included Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Charles Bledsoe, Charles Scott, and John Scott. All six attorneys were involved with the Kansas NAACP Legal Defense Fund of which Thurgood Marshall was the director counsel (Attorneys).

In defense of racially segregated schools, the Board of Education argued that the Constitution, firstly, did not require that black and white students attend the same public school and that segregation, a regional practice, could not be interfered by the federal government. In addition, segregation was not harmful to black people. And lastly, because freedom was still very new to black people and their children, it would take time for them to be able to integrate and attend schools with white children. White people, they said, were taking part in helping to equalize all schools (The Segregationists’ Arguments). The Board of Education of Topeka took a very literal interpretation of the Constitution.       

The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund attorneys presented a lengthy number of legal arguments, historical evidence, and social evidence. Contrary to the argument presented by the defense attorneys, the government did, in fact, have the power to outlaw discriminatory state activity. Their legal arguments included that there had been a misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case. Equal protection of the law did not endorse racial segregation, moreover, the Fourteenth Amendment did not explicitly permit segregation of schools. States providing public education should make it available and equal for all. Their historical evidence specified that the Fourteenth Amendment could not determine the outcome of the case by applying the circumstances in which the amendment was written. Rather, it should be used relative to the value of education at present. The separate but equal doctrine, upheld in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, held no ground in education (The Integrationalists’ Arguments). Social evidence, used in the Kansas district court, demonstrated that segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Educational opportunities could not be equal in segregated schools whether they were equal in facilities or not (Justia, Brown v. Board). To put it simply, what the plaintiff really wanted was desegregation and admission to their local public schools within their communities.

All of the cases comprising Brown et al. referenced the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment explicitly says that . No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens. nor. deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law; nor deny. within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (Monk 217). Segregation, claimed the NAACP, was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, and therefore violated the Due Process Clause in the Fifth Amendment.

        The Supreme Court, divided amongst each other, wanted to rehear the arguments of the Brown cases and both sides’ opinions on racial segregation regarding the time in which the Fourteenth Amendment was passed (Justia, Brown v. Board). Dwight D. Eisenhower, president of the United States beginning in 1953, chose Earl Warren, governor of California, as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Eisenhower believed that Warren would follow a moderate course of action toward desegregation (Documents Related).


        On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read the unanimous Supreme Court decision, announcing: in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal (Justia, Brown v. Board). Following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read the unanimous Supreme Court decision on how to implement desegregation of schools. Desegregation was to be carried out with all deliberate speed (History). This second ruling is now referred to as Brown v. Board of Education II. The overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, the ruling, known as Brown v. Board of Education II, ended legal segregation had officially ended, marking the beginning of integration of all public schools in America.

From 1846 to 1954, the nature of citizenship for African Americans greatly evolved. They started off not being considered citizens, then to being considered citizens but through denied the rights of citizens, to finally being fully recognized as citizens with their rights protected by amendments in the Constitution. But that does not mean that no further action should be taken for equality of black and African American people in the United States.

The Civil War freed slaves, but raised questions about the legal rights of black and freed-people and if they were to be considered citizens. In 1846, before the Civil War, Dred Scott sued for his freedom, but in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that, firstly, Dred Scott did not have the right to sue because he was not a citizen and secondly, no black person could ever be a citizen in the United States (Introduction 8). Then, the Fourteenth Amendment (1866), passed by Congress year after the Civil War granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized, prohibiting states from denying anyone citizenship (Amar). The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, made voting, discussed in the Fourteenth Amendment, a constitutional right. The right to vote allowed black people the chance to elect people in power who they trusted would protect their rights. Alongside the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Congress ruled that discrimination based on race was unconstitutional. However, the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 overturned the Civil Rights Act, deciding that Congress did not have the power to control state action. With this Civil Rights Cases of 1883 ruling, the power of Congress was limited in terms of being able to advocate for the rights of black people. The Plessy v. Ferguson case, however, established the Black Codes, again restricting the freedoms of black people. But after the Brown v. Board case, ruling segregation to be against against the law, black people had more freedom than ever before.

Brown v. Board did not altogether end segregation of schools. As a matter of fact, many schools are still segregated depending on the average income in that neighborhood. For example, children living in middle-class neighborhood’s will receive a better education than to a child living in a low-income neighborhood. The amount of funding provided to schools depends on their setting (Galster, 92). And so, even if schools are not discriminating one person from another, they are likely to be very racially segregated due to availability and quality of resources.

Segregation in America is still largely the norm, much revolving around housing, impacting schools and education. African Americans, today, are likely to live in highly segregated neighborhoods lacking quality educational services, economic opportunities, and community support systems (Galster, 90). It all leads back to housing. Lower-class blacks and African Americans often cannot afford housing in areas with better schools and resources. In finding cheaper housing, they stray from a better quality of life. With insufficient education, jobs are harder to obtain, keeping them from being able to upgrade living conditions. Government policies were created to ensure that access to equal opportunities (Galster, 93). But they still find themselves in de facto segregation within society, outside of the law.

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Understanding Of Brown v. Board of Education. (2019, Nov 13). Retrieved April 1, 2023 , from

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