Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954, 1955)
Brown v. Board of Education was the Court’s greatest twentieth-century decision, a pivotal case that separated one era from another and that permanently reshaped the debate about race and American society. Time magazine declared that, with the exception of Scott v. Sandford, no other decision in the Court’s history was more significant. The Dred Scott case was universally acknowledged as a “wrong” decision and often considered the worst decision in Supreme Court history, whereas Brown was seen, outside the South, as a great moral victory. Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was later appointed to the high court, was especially pleased. He recalled that when he heard about the result, “I was so happy I was numb.”
The decision was actually two decisions, both unanimous and both authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren. The first, issued in 1954, is known as Brown I. In a nontechnical, direct, and unanimous opinion, the Court ended the practice of legal racial segregation in public schools. Warren explained that even if racially segregated schools had equal facilities and teachers, they would nevertheless always be unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That clause provides that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson the Court had previously interpreted equal protection to mean that a state could divide people along racial lines as long as it provided equal facilities for them; this doctrine became known as “separate but equal.” In the context of schools, for example, the Plessy ruling meant that black students could be sent to one school and white students to another as long as the facilities and teachers were of equal quality. The concept was something of a sham, because all-white legislatures and school boards seldom showered equal resources on white and black schools. In 1954, however, the Court rejected the position established in Plessy.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
- 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
- Decided: May 17, 1954
- Vote: 9–0
- Opinion of the Court: Earl Warren
A year later the justices issued a second decision, known as Brown II. The Court knew that ending racial segregation and setting aside the “separate but equal” doctrine would be controversial. At the time of the Brown decision, segregation existed throughout the United States, but the Court’s ruling would have particular significance in the South. In most of the country, segregation was de facto, meaning that it existed not by force of law but by social custom and practice. In the South, however, it was de jure, meaning that it was established by law, and that put it in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The justices in Brown II, therefore, called for an end to de jure segregation with “all deliberate speed.”
What we today call the Brown decisions were actually composed of five different cases, four from southern and border states (South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Kansas) and one from the District of Columbia. In each instance, Thurgood Marshall played a critical role.
In Briggs v. Elliott, Harry Briggs and more than sixty other black parents sued the Clarendon County, South Carolina, schools district to demand equal facilities. In Clarendon, white children rode buses to modern schools while black children walked as far as five miles to dilapidated buildings. The political leaders of South Carolina attempted to undercut the litigation by pouring money into black schools in an effort to make them materially equal to white schools, to fulfill the Plessy definition of “separate but equal.” Marshall, however, insisted that the impact of segregation was felt most fully and most tragically by black children. To support his position he hired the black social psychologist Kenneth Clark, who used experiments with black and white dolls to test black children’s self-image. When asked which doll was “nice” or which they liked best, black children repeatedly chose the white doll.
Three other state cases raised similar issues but in different ways. In Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., the plaintiffs, ninth grader Dorothy Davis and 106 other students, complained about the poor facilities of all-black Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. In Gebhart v. Belton, Ethel Belton and seven other black parents in Wilmington, Delaware, angry that their children had to travel downtown to attend an all-black high school that was inferior to a nearby all-white school, sued so their children would be able to attend the closer school. Finally, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Oliver Brown had tried to enroll his daughter Linda in the Sumner School, a few blocks from their home. School authorities denied his request and directed Linda to attend the all-black Monroe School. To do so, Linda had to walk a mile through a railroad switchyard to catch a school bus. After the schools turned down his request, Brown went to the NAACP, which filed suit.
The fifth case, Bolling v. Sharpe, which involved the District of Columbia, was argued at the same time, although separately from the four other state cases. A representative for twelve-year-old Spotswood Bolling Jr. charged that racially segregated schools in the District were woefully deficient. Although the problem was the same as in the states, the fact that Congress controlled the District meant that Bolling’s counsel could not base his case on the Fourteenth Amendment, which applied to the states. In this instance, the argument was that de jure segregation by race violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which applied to the federal government.
The power of the Plessy precedent was obvious when the cases were argued in the lower federal courts. In each instance, except for Delaware, the blacks seeking desegregation lost. The cases made their way to the high court separately but were consolidated by the justices in order to expedite hearing them and addressing the broad issues they raised. As Brown was first alphabetically, it became the case name with which we associate the litigation.
Revolutionary though they were, the two Brown decisions and that in Bolling stemmed from nearly sixty years of litigation designed by the NAACP to bring an end to what was known as Jim Crow. The term originated in the 1830s when a white performer blackened his face with charcoal and danced a jig while singing the song “Jump Jim Crow.” By the 1850s the Jim Crow character had become a standard of American minstrel shows that depicted stereotypical images of black inferiority. The term Jim Crow became a racial slur synonymous with black, colored, or Negro in the vocabulary of many whites; and by the end of the century acts of racial discrimination toward blacks were often referred to as Jim Crow laws and practices.
Beginning in the 1880s, states in the American South imposed so-called Jim Crow laws that segregated the races in public accommodations, schools, and transportation. In 1896 the high court in Plessy v. Ferguson gave constitutional validity to these laws. By a vote of 7 to 1, the justices held that state-imposed racial segregation was constitutionally acceptable under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities and personnel were equal. The author of the majority opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown, observed that no law could overcome the prejudice that whites held against blacks. Under these circumstances, Brown concluded, segregation by race was “reasonable.” The lone dissenter in the case, Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former Kentucky slaveholder, reached exactly the opposite conclusion. Harlan explained, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” In Brown the justices made Harlan’s dissent the law of the land.
By the 1930s the increasingly aggressive NAACP had developed what it hoped would be a successful strategy to force the Court to abandon Plessy. The organization’s legal arm, the Legal Defense and Education Fund, and students and faculty at the Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., led the charge. The NAACP, founded in 1909, took as its mission the expansion of rights for African Americans. The association struggled, however, to develop a coordinated legal strategy. In 1922, Charles Garland, a white Boston millionaire, established the Garland Fund for the purpose of providing legal defense to African Americans. The NAACP drew on its funds to finance the legal campaign to end segregation. In 1934 the NAACP appointed Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of the Howard Law School and the first black member of the Harvard Law Review, its first full-time counsel. Houston brought strong administrative leadership and excellent legal judgment to the task of resolving issues of discrimination, violence, and segregation. He also transformed the Howard Law School into a laboratory for civil rights litigation and trained two generations of African American lawyers.
Among Howard’s graduates was Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall graduated first in his class in 1933 and then joined Houston on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. Marshall worked full time for the NAACP, first as a counsel and then as the director of the Legal Defense and Education Fund. The purpose of the fund, which was established in 1939 and had its roots in Garland’s earlier contribution, was to “give the Southern Negro his constitutional rights.” Marshall achieved twenty-nine Supreme Court victories, including Brown.
Marshall and Houston realized that they could not directly confront Plessy. They knew that Plessy was a powerful precedent and that white southern parents were opposed to having their children mix with blacks in elementary and secondary schools. Instead, they strategically whittled away at the precedent by attacking segregation in professional and graduate education. Their first breakthrough came in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). The University of Missouri School of Law denied Lloyd Gaines admission solely because of his race. The state offered to pay his tuition at a public law school in an adjacent state, but Gaines refused. He argued that he had a constitutional right to pursue a legal education in the state where he lived. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote the majority opinion that invalidated Missouri’s out-of-state tuition program for African American law students and required the state to provide appropriate facilities. After winning his victory, however, Gaines disappeared. Rumors circulated that he had been a victim of the Ku Klux Klan or other vigilantes opposed to racial equality, but no one has ever discovered his fate.
The litigation campaign reached another milestone in 1948 with Shelley v. Kraemer. In this case, for the first time, the attorney general of the United States submitted an amicus curiae (friend of the court ) brief.. The action not only signaled the positive support of the federal government for the NAACP’s strategy, but also placed the government on the winning side. The justices held that restrictive covenants, agreements placed in real estate contracts to block the sale of property to a black person, were unenforceable.
Two years later the Legal Defense and Education Fund scored another victory when the Court, ruling in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents and Sweatt v. Painter, invalidated segregation first in graduate and then in legal education. Jim Crow, the justices held, could not be supported merely by claiming that facilities were equal; instead, the Court indicated that there were other intangible consequences to segregation by race. Among these was the isolation that blacks suffered from being unable to interact with white classmates.
Racial exclusion in other areas was also unraveling. For example, in Smith v. Allwright (1944) the Court began to strike down state laws that made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to vote in the southern states. With this string of successes, in the early 1950s the NAACP decided to move directly against segregation in elementary and secondary schools.
Chief Justice Fred Vinson, a Kentuckian and the author of the Court’s opinions in Sweatt and McLaurin, was reluctant to hear the five cases that led to the Brown decision. So, too, were other members of the Court. They recognized how fully issues of race had become insinuated into American life. Any action by the Court would provoke a backlash from a southern white population secure in the precedent established by Plessy. The justices also understood that de facto desegregation had become a common feature of life in the North, but their attention was drawn most fully to the separation of race that was created in the South by law. That concern, and not the fate of blacks in segregated schools of the North, drew their almost exclusive attention. They recognized that any decision on segregation would affect millions of schoolchildren, their parents, and dozens of states where it was formal state policy.
Despite these concerns, the justices heard the Brown cases and the Bolling case in 1952. The result was a sharp division. Most of the justices accepted that legal segregation was wrong, but they disagreed sharply over the questions of how and how quickly to provide relief. The 1952 term ended with no decision.
Then fate intervened. Chief Justice Vinson, who was deeply worried about the impact that eliminating segregation would have on his native South, died. His replacement was Earl Warren, former attorney general and governor of California and aspirant for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1952. That nomination went instead to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gained the Californian’s support at the Republic National Convention by promising him the first vacancy on the high bench. In retrospect, Eisenhower considered his selection of Warren to be his biggest political mistake. The new chief justice quickly moved to redefine much of the nation’s fundamental law, usually in ways with which President Eisenhower disagreed. Warren’s opinion in Brown was merely the first of what proved to be flood of landmark rulings.
Warren knew above all else that the Court had to speak with a unanimous voice on such a controversial matter as segregation. He persuaded his fellow justices that the best course of action was to order the cases to be reargued. The Court also asked the solicitor general of the United States to file an amicus curiae brief. (The solicitor is the government lawyer who argues its positions before the justices.) The new Eisenhower administration was reluctant to do so, in part because the issue was so divisive, in part because Eisenhower believed that the states should be left to handle racial issues, and in part because the President wanted to keep the support of the four southern states he had won. The Republicans also had captured the House and Senate, and they were reluctant to hurt their chances of building additional strength in the South. However, the administration reluctantly filed in support of desegregation, fearing that if Eisenhower failed to do so he would run the risk of alienating northern moderates in his party.
While the government was putting together its brief in the summer of 1953, Marshall and the NAACP organized an extensive research effort that drew on the work of historians and social scientists to establish the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. The post–Civil War Congress had passed the amendment as one of several ways of making the states more responsible to the national government on matters of civil rights. The amendment was composed of five sections, of which the first and the fifth were the most important. The first provided, among other things, that
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
This powerful language meant that certain forms of state action, such as establishing access to schools, hotels, and trains based on race, might well be subject to scrutiny in the federal courts. The Supreme Court had examined these actions in Plessy, but it had found that separate but equal facilities were in fact constitutional.
The fifth section of the amendment provided that “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” These words wrote a revolution in the relationship between the states and the federal government, but how broad a revolution was open to speculation. Did the framers of that amendment contemplate that it would encompass desegregation of public facilities in general and schools in particular? The NAACP’s research proved inconclusive on the specific question of their intent, but it did affirm that the framers were pointing toward a broad, egalitarian future, a finding at odds with Plessy.
The reargument of Brown and Bolling occurred in December of 1953. Marshall contended that, contrary to Plessy, racial segregation was an unreasonable action because it was based on an arbitrary and capricious use of race and color. Marshall, drawing on the precedents he had fashioned over the previous two decades, reminded the justices that they had already found racial distinctions in violation of the equal protection clause in cases involving higher education. The same principle, he insisted, should be extended to public education and all public facilities. In an appendix to his brief Marshall also invoked Kenneth Clark’s research using black and white dolls to show that segregation had negatively affected black children. Not only did black children suffer from low self-esteem, but they were unable to live, work, and cooperate with the children of the majority population.
On the other side was John W. Davis, a legal powerhouse. He had argued more than 250 cases before the Supreme Court, more than any other lawyer in the twentieth century. At the time of Brown, Davis was a corporate lawyer with a lucrative practice in New York City. During an unsuccessful campaign for President, Davis had denounced the Ku Klux Klan. However, many considered Davis to be a “gentleman racist,” a passionate conservative who dismissed federal woman suffrage and antilynching bills as egalitarian meddling in the rights of states to regulate their own social policies.
Davis’s argument was a straightforward mix of established law and pragmatism. Plessy remained binding precedent, he argued, which the justices would set aside at their own peril. Moreover, Kansas had a history of segregation and it had produced little criticism from either blacks or whites. That state’s legislature, not the courts, should be the deciding body on such a matter because it knew best what the local conditions were. Laws, Davis reminded the Court in words that echoed Henry Billings Brown’s opinion in Plessy, never had and never could destroy prejudice. When facilities were materially equal or when the states were working hard to make them equal, there could be no violation of the equal protection clause. Davis also reminded the justices that, historically, social and political equality had been treated as entirely different matters under the Fourteenth Amendment, the purpose of which was merely to provide for the latter. Finally, Davis argued, segregation was fading and would soon be gone. Patience would be a virtue for the Court and the nation, since overturning Plessy would only produce social turmoil. The law of Plessy was clear: the principle of “separate but equal” was constitutional.
Warren had inherited a Court divided. The split among the justices reflected their differing beliefs about the social costs that would accompany the desegregation of thousands of schools with millions of students. Some justices believed that the Court should not intervene in matters that were best left to the states to handle as they saw fit. A majority agreed, however, that legally based segregation by race was socially and constitutionally wrong and that the Court had to do something to set the record right.
Warren’s leadership was critical in two ways. First, he persuaded his colleagues to decide the merits of segregation in one opinion and to leave the question of relief to a second one following yet another reargument. Second, Warren used every persuasive power he could command to achieve unanimity. His two greatest challenges were Robert H. Jackson, who threatened to issue a concurring opinion, and Stanley F. Reed, a Kentuckian who planned to dissent. Jackson’s law clerk, the future Supreme Court justice William H. Rehnquist, provided a memorandum that urged Jackson to accept the constitutionality of Plessy, a position that he ultimately resisted. Reed, fearing that his dissent would become fuel for racists and segregationists and with Warren’s urging, decided to join the rest of the Court.
There is little doubt about Warren’s sentiments. Although he had supported the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, he understood clearly the social and human costs associated with segregation. For example, shortly before the Supreme Court announced its decision, Warren decided to visit a few of the Civil War battlefields in Virginia. He cut his trip short after his black chauffeur was unable to find lodging in the racially segregated region. Greatly upset by the incident, Warren viewed this experience as evidence of the need to overturn segregation.
Warren devised a strategy designed to foster harmony among the justices, convening three separate conferences to discuss the case. In the first conference he presented the issue in a moral perspective. The underlying proposition in Plessy was that blacks were in fact inferior to whites. Warren reminded his colleagues that to uphold Plessy, the Court would have to agree with such a presumption. At the second conference, Warren appeased his southern colleagues by assuring them that a decision in favor of desegregation would be flexible on the matter of a remedy, which would be addressed in a separate opinion. Warren announced as well that he would take on the task of preparing the opinion of the Court. At the third conference, he presented the broad outline of his opinion.
Brown I held unanimously that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The chief justice used a short, nontechnical, and nonaccusatory opinion to make this basic point. “We come then to the question presented,” Warren wrote. “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does,” he concluded in words that no one could ignore. Segregation, regardless of circumstances, had deprived minority children of equal educational opportunities and probably generated feelings of inferiority among them. While Plessy may have been good law at one time, it was no longer supported by what Warren called “modern authority” and current psychological knowledge. In public education, separate facilities were inherently unequal even if materially the same.
Warren’s opinion was unusual in that it drew upon few legal authorities and offered no immediate remedy. Instead, Warren stated what he and his colleagues believed to the right, correct, and just thing to be done—children should not be categorized by race when it came to attending a public school. Warren avoided the use of extensive legal citations because doing so offered the best way of getting his somewhat divided colleagues to reach a decision in favor of desegregation. As important, legal precedent did not weigh fully on Warren’s side and, as a result, he knew that invoking it would only confuse those who would read his opinion. The absence of legal authority, however, left the Chief Justice and the Court open to charges that they were substituting their own views for those of the elected representatives from the states where legal segregation by race was to end. Warren also avoided entangling the broad principle that he stated with a specific course of action, which meant that the elimination of racial segregation in public schools could be addressed fully as a moral matter rather than be framed as a specific set of difficult steps to bring about its end. The Court, therefore, requested that the parties provide further argument about how to remedy segregation, which would be addressed in a later opinion.
In a separate opinion in the Bolling case, Warren found for a unanimous court that segregation by race in the District of Columbia was unconstitutional. As the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to the federal government, Warren turned instead to the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. He concluded that it implicitly forbade most racial segregation by the federal government. If the states were constitutionally prohibited from segregating in public schools, then it would be “unthinkable . . . to impose a lesser duty”in the District of Columbia. Because the Fifth Amendment did apply to the federal government, which governed the District, then it followed that the amendment’s due process clause forbade racial discrimination.
Warren also wrote for the Court in Brown II. The chief justice reiterated that racial discrimination and segregation in the public schools were unconstitutional and that state school authorities had the primary burden of enforcing this principle. He made the federal district courts in the affected states responsible for legal oversight of the school authorities. The defendants, under the supervision of district court judges, were required to admit children of color to the public schools on a nondiscriminatory basis “with all deliberate speed.” These words were meant to assure both sides that action would be taken but not in a hasty way. As it turned out, the impact of the decision was more deliberate than speedy.
The two Brown opinions and that in Bolling mixed moral symbolism with pragmatic expediency. The Court proclaimed an end to legal segregation based on race but then stopped short of demanding an immediate solution. No matter the immorality of segregation, it could only be eliminated gradually. The result was almost two decades of waffling and tardy implementation. Nevertheless, the Brown decision continued the venture of seeking democratic equality through the judicial system. Although Marshall and his colleagues were elated at first, they quickly realized that Brown was just the beginning.
Many southern officials labeled the day of the announcement of the Brown I decision as Black Monday, and most southern members of Congress signed a Southern manifesto, which denounced the decision and the justices. In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas ordered the state’s National Guard to physically prevent black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock. In response to a federal court order, Faubus removed the National Guard, and violence followed. A mob outside the school beat several black reporters, who were there to cover the event. Mothers yelled to their children, “Come out! Don’t stay with those niggers!” Inside the school, white students spat on the black students, who were forced to escape through a rear door. The editor of the Arkansas Gazette summed up the situation this way, “The police have been routed, the mob is in the streets and we’re close to a reign of terror.” President Eisenhower took control of the situation by placing the guard under his control and ordering U.S. Army troops to restore order and escort black students to their classes.
Following the events at Central High School, the Little Rock School District suspended desegregation efforts for two and a half years. The NAACP challenged this decision, and in the 1958 case of Cooper v. Aaron, the Court handed down an angry 9–0 opinion criticizing local officials’ resistance to Brown. Following the lead of Governor Faubus, the Arkansas legislature amended the state’s constitution to outlaw desegregation. William G. Cooper, President of the Little Rock School District, sued to have the desegregation program ended, claiming that the opposition of state government and public hostility created an intolerable situation. In effect, Arkansas and the Little Rock School District were thumbing their noses at the Supreme Court and its decision in Brown. In an unusual action, all nine justices signed the Court’s opinion, underscoring not just their unanimity but their decisiveness on the issue of a state attempting to subvert one of their decisions. “No state legislator or executive or judicial officer,” the Court explained, “can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.” The justices were emphatic: they alone could interpret conclusively the meaning of the Constitution and no state authority had any power to intervene.
Issues of white flight from southern cities to the suburbs and de facto residential segregation in northern school districts further complicated the implementation of Brown. After resisting further direct involvement with the issue, the justices in 1970 accepted a new and controversial solution: busing of children from one part of town to another to achieve integration, the active pursuit of racial diversity in the schools, not merely desegregation, and the ending of legally enforced racial separation. In the landmark case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) the Court permitted lower federal court judges to impose busing to achieve desegregation of school districts.
In the mid-1990s, however, after several rulings from a more conservative Supreme Court, federal judges abandoned the issue of integration. They asserted that local officials had made a good faith effort to desegregate and that was all that could be required.
The impact of Brown extended beyond school desegregation. Shortly after the decision, federal courts at all levels were citing Brown in cases challenging different forms of segregation. These included segregated beaches in Baltimore, golf courses in Atlanta, and public housing in Michigan and Missouri. In this way, Brown helped to break down the system that had made blacks the nation’s official pariahs. For example, by the early 1980s, at least according to public opinion surveys, the color line was close to disappearing completely. Ninety-four percent of Americans, both black and white, subscribed to the principle that black and white children should go to the same schools.
Today, save for extraordinarily few holdouts, racism and the color line that went with it are deemed unacceptable, and racial diversity is viewed as a public good. That said, there is still substantial disagreement about how to achieve diversity and how to use the state’s power to allot some of society’s most important rewards and benefits, such as access to a college education. We live, today, in a nation where African Americans make up more than 50 percent of the prison population, even though they make up just 12 percent of the general population. Black males between ages eighteen and twenty-four are almost ten times more likely than white males of the same age to be the victims of homicide. Black children are far more likely than white children to live in poverty; their parents are far more likely to be unemployed or to earn low incomes.
We are also in the middle of a national trend toward school resegregation. That process has pushed more and more African American and Latino students into those schools with 75 percent or more minority children. Gary Orfield, codirector of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, released a major research report in 2001 that documented the emergence of a substantial group of American schools that are virtually nonwhite. Many school systems outside the South are more racially segregated today than they were in 1954. And in the South the picture is mixed. Take, for example, Clarendon County, South Carolina, where one of the Brown desegregation cases began. The public schools there are 98 percent black; the private schools established following court orders that compelled integration are 98 percent white.
Both the U.S. military and major corporations have concluded that having well-educated minority students is essential to providing leaders for the nation’s increasingly diverse population. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, persons from minority backgrounds occupied posts of major national trust, including the secretary of state, national security advisor to the President, secretary of education, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and attorney general. Since 1968 there has been an African American on the high court.
These developments were, in 1954, beyond comprehension, and they signal a profound change in American life. Did Brown make these developments possible? The answer is clearly yes, although it does not follow that Brown alone made them possible.
During the period in which the high court considered Brown, the members of the Court viewed the changes taking place among blacks as astounding. Justice Robert Jackson noted privately that the advances made by blacks since the Civil War were among the most impressive in human history. Justice Felix Frankfurter agreed, and he even made the point to his colleagues as they deliberated Brown that, in the end, it was these changes that should prompt the Court to support desegregation.
Finally, Brown stirred a massive backlash, one that is hard for Americans who did not live through the decades of the 1950s and 1960s to appreciate. The decision, for example, inspired action from the South’s white supremacists. It profoundly radicalized southern politics and made such figures as arch-segregationist governor George C. Wallace of Alabama temporarily legitimate. In his 1963 inauguration speech Wallace intoned the words, “segregation today. . . segregation tomorrow. . . segregation forever.” Such words stirred violence against peaceful civil rights demonstrators, but they also mobilized national political support for civil rights and voting rights legislation that struck at the heart of segregation.
In 2004, the fiftieth anniversary of the Court’s decision in Brown, critics were out in force, arguing that the justices’ landmark ruling had accomplished little. It would be a mistake, they insisted, to attribute too much to the work of the Court. Yet the appropriate measure of the Court’s success is not what it should have done measured against today’s standards but instead what it did during the 1950s and 1960s. In that context, the decision was one of the great milestones in the course of human rights and freedom, a conclusion the rest of the world seems to recognize. In international human rights law, Brown is one of the most, if not the most, respected of American cases.
The Southern Declaration on Integration
Justice Earl Warren’s opinions in Brown I and Brown II ignited a storm of protest in the South. An entire generation of segregationists, such as George C. Wallace of Alabama, built their careers by claiming that the decision was unconstitutional. Wallace and other southern political leaders understood what the broader white population wanted: resistance to the Court and, more generally, to federal authorities demanding that they yield their historic race-based social practices. The “Southern Declaration on Integration” was the first step in a program of resistance to Brown that stretched over more than two decades. This document was signed by ninety-six southern congressmen—practically the entire southern delegation in the House of Representatives—and published in the Congressional Record.
We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases as clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the states and the people.
The original Constitution does not mention education. Neither does the Fourteenth Amendment nor any other amendment. The debates preceding the submission of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly show that there was no intent that it should affect the systems of education maintained by the states.
The very Congress which proposed the amendment subsequently provided for segregated schools in the District of Columbia.
When the amendment was adopted in 1868, there were thirty-seven states of the Union. Every one of the twenty-six states that had any substantial racial differences among its people either approved the operation of segregated schools already in existence or subsequently established such schools by action of the same law-making body which considered the Fourteenth Amendment.
As admitted by the Supreme Court in the public school case (Brown v. Board of Education), the doctrine of separate but equal schools “apparently originated in Roberts v. City of Boston (1849), upholding school segregation against attack as being violative of a state constitutional guarantee of equality.” This constitutional doctrin begain in the North–not in the South–and it was followed not only in Massachusetts but in Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other northern states until they, exercising their rights as states through the constitutional processes of local self-government, changed their school systems.
In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 the Supreme Court expressly declared that under the Fourteenth Amendment no person was denied any of his rights if the states provided separate but equal public facilities. This decision has been followed in many other cases . . .
This interpretation, restated time and again, became a part of the life of the people of many of the states and confirmed their habits, customs, traditions, and way of life. It is founded on elemental humanity and common sense, for parents should not be deprived by Government of the right to direct the lives and education of their own children.
Though there has been no constitutional amendment or act of Congress changing this established legal principle almost a century old, the Supreme Court of the United States, with no legal basis for such action, undertook to exercise their naked judicial power and substituted their personal political and social ideas for the established law of the land.
This unwarranted exercise of power by the court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the states principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through ninety years of patient effort by the good people of both races . It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.
Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states.
With the gravest concern for the explosive and dangerous condition created by this decision and inflamed by outside meddlers:
We reaffirm our reliance on the Constitution as the fundamental law of the land.
We decry the Supreme Court’s encroachments on rights reserved to the states and to the people, contrary to established law and to the Constitution.
We commend the motives of those states which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means.
We appeal to the states and people who are not directly affected by these decisions to consider the constitutional principles involved against the time when they too, on issues vital to them, may be the victims of judicial encroachment.
Even though we constitute a minority in the present Congress, we have full faith that a majority of the American people believe in the dual system of government which has enabled us to achieve our greatness and will in time demand that the reserved rights of the states and of the people be made secure against judicial usurpation.
We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.
In this trying period, as we all seek to right this wrong, we appeal to our people not to be provoked by the agitators and troublemakers invading our states and to scrupulously refrain from disorder and lawless acts.