May-17-1954: The Second Emancipation (Brown v Board of Education)

A Unanimous Second Emancipation
Brown v Board of Education

On this day in 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court outlawed segregation in U.S. schools for good in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).  Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan called the decision “our second emancipation”.

The court was presented with the question of upholding the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v Ferguson (1894) and unanimously said “no”.

We come then to the question presented: 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.

. . . We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. . . .

It is so ordered.

The decision sent shock waves throughout the nation and would be met with fierce resistance in much of the South.  It would not be until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 containing provisions allowing the federal government to file suit against segregated school districts or cut off funding that you began to see a significant change.  In 1964 only 2.3 percent of black students attended majority white schools, but eight years later over a third were in majority white schools.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) attorney Thurgood Marshall was one of the attorneys who argued the case.  Thirteen years later he would be confirmed to the Supreme Court as the first African-American justice.

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