Brown v. Board of Education

Nettie Hunt and her daughter, Nickie, sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nettie holding a newspaper reading "High courts bans segregation in public schools"
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The 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education ended with a Supreme Court decision that helped lead to the desegregation of schools throughout America. Prior to the ruling, African-American children in Topeka, Kansas were denied access to all-white schools due to laws allowing for separate but equal facilities. The idea of separate but equal was given legal standing with the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. This doctrine required that any separate facilities had to be of equal quality. However, the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education successfully argued that segregation was inherently unequal. 

Case Background

In the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought class action lawsuits against school districts in several states, seeking court orders that would require the districts to allow Black children to attend white schools. One of these suits was filed against the board of education in Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of Oliver Brown, a parent of a child who was denied access to white schools in the Topeka school district. The original case was tried in a district court and was defeated on the grounds that the Black schools and white schools were sufficiently equal and therefore segregated schooling in the district was protected under the Plessy decision. The case was then heard by the Supreme Court in 1954, along with other similar cases from around the country, and it became known as Brown v. Board of Education. The chief council for the plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first Black Justice appointed to the Supreme Court.

Brown’s Argument

The lower court that ruled against Brown focused on comparisons of basic facilities offered in both the Black and white schools of the Topeka school district. By contrast, the Supreme Court case involved a much more in-depth analysis, looking at the effects that the different environments had on the students. The Court determined that segregation led to lowered self-esteem and a lack of confidence that could affect a child’s ability to learn. It found that separating students by race sent the message to Black students that they were inferior to white students and therefore schools serving each race separately could never be equal. 

The Significance of Brown v. Board of Education

The Brown decision was truly significant because it overturned the separate but equal doctrine established by the Plessy decision. While previously the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was interpreted so that equality before the law could be met through segregated facilities, with Brown this was no longer true. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, and the Court ruled that separate facilities based on race were ipso facto unequal.

Compelling Evidence

One piece of evidence that greatly influenced the Supreme Court decision was based on research performed by two educational psychologists, Kenneth, and Mamie Clark. The Clarks presented children as young as 3 years old with white and brown dolls. They found that overall the children rejected the brown dolls when asked to pick which dolls they liked the best, wanted to play with, and thought were a nice color. This underlined the inherent inequality of a separate educational system based on race.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Brown v. Board of Education." ThoughtCo, Jan. 17, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, January 17). Brown v. Board of Education. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Brown v. Board of Education." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).