Brown v. Board of Education: The First Step in the Desegregation of America’s Schools

The children involved in the landmark Civil Rights lawsuit Brown v. Board of Education, which challenged the legality of American public school segregation: Vicki Henderson, Donald Henderson, Linda Brown, James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and Katherine Carper. (Credit: Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Source: History

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren issued the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The upshot: Students of color in America would no longer be forced by law to attend traditionally under-resourced black-only schools.

The decision marked a legal turning point for the American civil-rights movement. But it would take much more than a decree from the nation’s highest court to change hearts, minds and two centuries of entrenched racism. Brown was initially met with inertia and, in most southern states, active resistance. More than half a century later, progress has been made, but the vision of Warren’s court has not been fully realized.

The Supreme Court ruled “separate” meant unequal.
The landmark case began as five separate class-action lawsuits brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on behalf of black schoolchildren and their families in KansasSouth CarolinaDelawareVirginia and Washington, D.C. The lead plaintiff, Oliver Brown, had filed suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas in 1951, after his daughter Linda was denied admission to a white elementary school.

Her all-black school, Monroe Elementary, was fortunate—and unique—to be endowed with well-kept facilities, well-trained teachers and adequate materials. But the other four lawsuits embedded in the Brown case pointed to more common fundamental challenges. The case in Clarendon, South Carolina described school buildings as no more than dilapidated wooden shacks. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the high school had no cafeteria, gym, nurse’s office or teachers’ restrooms, and overcrowding led to students being housed in an old school bus and tar-paper shacks.

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