Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954)

Linda Brown was an eight year old, African American schoolgirl who was denied admission to an all-white elementary school four blocks from her house.  She was told she had to attend the nearest all-black school, twenty-one blocks away.  Her parents sued as part of a class action lawsuit with thirteen other families, challenging the school board’s practice of operating racially segregated school.

Segregation had become accepted practice with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.  In the Brown case, the notion that education facilities for African-Americans was anywhere close to equal to that provided for whites was challenged.  Furthermore, the plaintiffs argued that segregated schools contributed to discrimination against African-Americans in society as a whole.

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court unanimously stuck down segregation because it was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  Segregation was declared unconstitutional and, therefore, illegal.  But making segregation illegal was one thing, enforcing it was another.  While some communities desegregated schools without any major problems, there were more places where it was resisted, even to the point of violence.  This resistance to desegregation caused the Supreme Court to make a second ruling on the Brown case in 1955, referred to as Brown II.  It ordered the integration of public school to be implemented “with all deliberate speed.”

These rulings directly let to the Little Rock Crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.  Nine African-American students (called the “Little Rock Nine”) were kept from attending Central High School by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who ordered the National Guard to keep the students out.  A federal judge ordered the school to admit the students.  The NAACP arranged to escort the students to school, but could not reach one of them, Elizabeth Eckford, who set off to school alone.  Images of the abusive crowds Eckford faced helped put a human face on the issue.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who initially tried to stay out of the issue, was compelled to act.  The National Guard was put under federal control and, as Commander-In-Chief, ordered troops to escort the students to class.  Despite daily escorts to class for the rest of the school year, the Little Rock Nine, like others fighting segregation, faced harassment.  Organizations like the KKK regained strength, fueled by the issue.

In response to the national attention brought to the issue, Congress passed the first civil rights act since Reconstruction.  The Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave the U.S. attorney general greater power over school segregation and federal courts jurisdiction over violations of voting rights cases.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

BEFORE:  Korematsu v. United States (1944)

AFTER:  Watkins v. United States (1957)

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