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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Learn about the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school segregation in the United States. 


  • In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) a unanimous Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
  • The Court declared “separate” educational facilities “inherently unequal.”
  • The case electrified the nation, and remains a landmark in legal history and a milestone in civil rights history.

A segregated society

An 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, had declared “separate but equal” Jim Crow segregation legal. The Plessy ruling asserted that so long as purportedly “equal” accommodations were supplied for African Americans, the races could, legally, be separated. In consequence, “colored” and “whites only” signs proliferated across the South at facilities such as water fountains, restrooms, bus waiting areas, movie theaters, swimming pools, and public schools.1
Despite the claim that black schools were equal to white schools, schools for black children frequently lacked even basic necessities. In South Carolina, black children attended schools without running water, flush toilets, or electricity. In one county, $149 was spent per year on each white student, but only $43 on each black student. In Delaware, black students attended a poorly-equipped one-room schoolhouse, while a well-equipped white school existed nearby. In Virginia, a black high school at the center of the case was overcrowded and was without a cafeteria or gym; the same was not true at the local white school.2
In 1950s America segregation was largely, though not exclusively, a southern practice. Every state in the South mandated school segregation, and ten other states outside of the South either permitted or required segregation in public schools.3
Map of the United States indicating the states where school segregation was required, optional, forbidden, or unaffected by legislation. Segregation was required in all states of the Deep and Upper South, and optional in Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, and Wyoming.
Map of school segregation laws in each state before the Brown v. Board decision. Map adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

The Brown v. Board of Education case

Linda Brown, a third grader, was required by law to attend a school for black children in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas. To do so, Linda walked six blocks, crossing dangerous railroad tracks, and then boarded a bus that took her to Monroe Elementary. Yet, only seven blocks from her house was Sumner Elementary, a school attended by white children, and which, save for segregation, Linda would otherwise have attended.
The Topeka, Kansas chapter of the NAACP recruited Linda’s father, Oliver Brown, along with a dozen other local black parents, to file suit against the Topeka Board of Education in 1951. By the time the case made it to the US Supreme Court in 1954, it had been combined with four other similar school segregation cases into a single unified case.

Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP, and the Supreme Court

The NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, led a team of attorneys to argue the unified case in Brown v. Board before the Supreme Court.
The NAACP had been challenging segregation laws for many years prior to Brown. Marshall’s predecessor and mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, had won several smaller lawsuits targeting segregation in education in the 1930s. In 1950, Marshall had won a case before the Supreme Court, Sweatt v. Painter, in which the Court had ruled that a Texas law school purporting to offer black students an education equal to that which it offered whites was not—as measured by funding, faculty, or facilities—in fact equal. (The law school for black students consisted initially of only three basement classrooms and no library).5
Black and white photograph of Thurgood Marshall taken in 1957.
Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's chief counsel, argued the Brown v. Board case before the Supreme Court. Marshall would go on to become the first African American Supreme Court justice. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
After their success in Sweatt, Marshall and the other NAACP lawyers wanted to find and develop test cases by which means they could strike at the heart of segregation itself. They wanted the fact that students were being separated into different schools solely because of race itself declared unconstitutional. And, in Brown v. Board, Marshall and his colleagues found five cases through which they could work to achieve their goal.
Linda Brown’s case was particularly useful to Thurgood Marshall’s efforts because Monroe Elementary was not underfunded in comparison to Sumner Elementary. The school Linda attended was separate, but it was not, measured by funding, unequal. The case allowed Marshall and the other NAACP lawyers to focus attention on the question of the constitutionality of segregation itself.
In making the case in Brown, Marshall drew upon the research of two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, to argue that the very fact black and white children were sent to separate schools damaged the black children’s self-esteem, stigmatized them, and adversely shaped their self-image for the rest of their lives. Separate schools, Marshall argued, made plain to black children that they were deemed unworthy of being educated in the same classrooms as white children; school segregation reinforced notions of difference and inequality associated with race prejudice and racism.6

Separate is "inherently unequal"

In Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed segregation. The Court agreed with Thurgood Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers that segregated schooling violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of law. Speaking for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” He added: “Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.” The decision challenged de jure segregation of the races, and electrified the nation.
Though the Court’s ruling applied only to public schools, its declaration that “separate” is “inherently unequal” served as a reminder that not only in schools, but in all aspects of life, the separation of black and white Americans signaled an “inherently unequal” status between them. As such segregation did not measure up to the nation’s founding ideal that “all men are created equal.”

Brown II: Desegregating with "all deliberate speed”

In the summer of 1955 the Supreme Court issued its implementation ruling in a decision called Brown II. In Brown II the Court ordered that schools undertake desegregation with “all deliberate speed.” But just what the Court meant by “deliberate speed” came quickly into dispute. White citizens in the South organized a "Massive Resistance" campaign against integration.8
Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board was a major step forward in civil rights, it is important to note that the decision applied only to public schools. Brown v. Board did not address Jim Crow laws across the South that applied to restaurants, movie halls, public transportation, and more. Not until the 1960s--in laws such as The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and The Housing Rights Act of 1968—would these aspects of de jure segregation be put to an end.

What do you think?

How would you have reacted to segregation in the 1950s?
How do you think segregation made the United States look in the eyes of many in the larger world in the 1950s?
Are there any places in your life where you see de facto segregation present? If so, do you have ideas about what you might do?
How might schools look today if the Supreme Court had not invalidated “separate but equal” in the Brown decision?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Javier Hughes
    Where did the idea that black people are below white people even come from?
    (8 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user rick lee
    Was Thurgood Marshall the first ever african american supreme court justice?
    (8 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Maurício F. Bento
    Can't affirmative action be considered discrimination as it treats people differently based on race?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user hernanday oleary
      Well that would be the counter-argument to it existence. However in its absence what has been the outcome? The article above. The reality is, so much of the nation has gotten use to dehumanizing African Americans, without Affirmative Action, they'd probably stand little chance of any degree of fair treatment.
      (14 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Peaches
    I agree that segregation was wrong, without a doubt. However, based on this sentence:
    "In Delaware, black students attended a poorly-equipped one-room schoolhouse, while a well-equipped white school existed nearby."
    I can't help but to see how things are stated with omission of certain other contextual facts. Even in northern states, one-room schoolhouses weren't exactly uncommon, even for whites. I know because my great grandfather was a teacher who taught in one. And that was in Pennsylvania, where your article's map photo states that segregation in schools was "forbidden". Those schools also, obviously, wouldn't have had a gym or cafeteria. And the article keeps mentioning "impoverished" communities in the South, but Pennsylvania was industrial North; I assume for that reason that there would've been more funding, yet we still had plenty of one-room schoolhouses.
    I'm not arguing for segregation, so please don't misunderstand. I'm simply pointing out that, even today we—forward-thinking peoples—are susceptible to bias and misreading the past. Is it possible that schools, even back then, funded based on how many students they had enrolled? Personally, I don't feel that schools would have been inferior simply because they were one-room vs large schools with gyms and cafeterias. So long as each student was being fed an equally nutritious meal and there was outside space for physical activity. Though, when did physical education even become mandatory in schools, anyway? Kids were much more physically active and less lazy in general back then to begin with; it likely wasn't honestly a necessary thing back then—though I could be mistaken.
    I'm not saying that blacks were treated the same as whites back then, and I agree that segregation is most definitely wrong. However, I disagree with trying to amplify every single variation that can be found and subsequently turn every single black person into a victim. Of course there is still prejudice here and there; it isn't simply based on race though, because prejudice will always exist so long as human beings have differences. It exists for race, class, disability, religion, sex, hair color and style, political views, type of job, lack of job, large families, etc. The list goes on and on. Most people today recognize that our differences are what defines humanity.
    Those are just my thoughts...
    (8 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      These are good thoughts. Thank you for sharing. I've given you an upvote.

      The existence of one-room schools was also tied to things like population density in an area and the ease of transportation from home to school. Roads weren't always as good as they are now, and school buses much rarer, even in industrialized states like Pennsylvania (which has a LOT of rural, mountain, and underpopulated areas). The contrast in Delaware, to which you allude, was seen most starkly in the word "nearby". So, the white students were educated in a nearby well-equipped school, but the black students in the same area were offered merely one room. The discrimination is found in the "well equipped nearby" part of the sentence.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user clarkeliyah
    How do you think segregation made the United States look in the eyes of many in the larger world in the 1950s?
    (5 votes)
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  • mr pants purple style avatar for user Esmeralda Figueroa-Rubi
    OMG Idk why people are saying this is boring. Imagine getting judged or getting treated differently cause of the color of your skin. Never joke around with this cause it can hurt somebody feelings.✊🏽
    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user jongar694
    How would you have reacted to segregation in the 1950s?
    (5 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user templin.seth
    Could a white be able to stand up to blacks being called names and use black rights too?
    (6 votes)
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  • marcimus purple style avatar for user Callie Gordon
    Slay Queens
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby blue style avatar for user Paola Carrillo
    People were getting treated differently back then so we are lucky that now we are all treated the same and not judged.
    (5 votes)
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