Brown v Board of Education is one of the most famous landmark cases in American court history. Set against the backdrop of the early 1950s, just as the civil rights movement was beginning to heat up, Brown v Board of Education changed the face of American schools in a significant way and set the stage for further more sweeping reforms in other areas, such as worker discrimination and fair labor laws.
The stage for the conditions that led to Brown v Board of Education was a set of laws that rose out of the civil war restoration period called the Jim Crow laws. These laws varied from state to state and existed primarily in the South. These laws created separation of whites from blacks. Some of these laws include that blacks must sit at the back of the bus and relinquish their seat if a white passenger needed, blacks were supposed to drink from separate fountains, eat at separate restaurants, and use separate bathrooms. Often these facilities were not adequate and not as well kept and those designated for whites.
History of the Case
This was the case in the school system as well. These schools were supposed to be equal, but they were not. Linda Brown, a black third grader had to walk one mile through a railroad switchyard to attend her black elementary school. A white elementary school was seven blocks away (Cozzens, 1998). Linda’s father tried to enroll her in the white school but the principal refused. Linda’s father went to McKinely Burnett, director to the Topeka branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP decided to challenge segregation in public school soon others joined the fight. In 1951, the NAACP filed an injunction that forbid the segregation of Topeka’s public schools (Cozzens, 1998).
The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas heard the case on June 25-26, 1951. The NAACP argued that segregated schools sent a message that blacks were inferior to whites and this made the ideal that all schools were equal invalid, (Cozzens, 1998) especially in the eyes of the children.
The Board of Education’s defense centered around the idea that segregation in schools served a purpose that this prepared black children for the segregation that they would experience for the rest of their lives in other areas. They argued that segregated schools were a minor experience for the children and pointed out several black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver who had over come much more than segregated schools to achieve their goals (Cozzens, 1998). The essence of their argument was to belittle the importance of the issue. The judge agreed that segregation of white and colored children affected the black children’s self-esteem and would therefore effect their motivation to learn, putting them at a disadvantage (Cozzens, 1998).
The case of Plessy v Ferguson (1868) set the precedent that allowed separate, but equal schools for blacks and whites. This decision had not been overturned by the Supreme Court and the district court did not feel that it had a right to overturn the decision. They commented that they agreed that segregated schools were damaging to black children, but that it had to rule in favor of the Board of Education due to the past precedent in Plessy v. Ferguson (Cozzens, 1998).
Brown and the NAACP appealed to the Supreme Court on October 1, 1951. The court case presented was combined with other similar court cases from South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The case was heard on December 9, 1952, but failed to reach a decision. The case was re-heard on December 7-8, 1953 and the Court requested that both sides discuss the circumstances which led to the adoption of the Fourth Amendment in 1868 (Cozzens, 1998). This argument did little to help solve the case. The Court’s intent on requiring this argument was to determine if the authors of the Fourth Amendment had desegregated schools in mind when they wrote the Amendment. However, this issue was never resolved and they court had to base its decision on whether segregated schools were detrimental to black children (Cozzens, 1998).
On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read the decision of the unanimous court:
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” (Brown v Board of Education (1954) in Cozzens, 1998).
This ruling reversed the Plessy decision of separate but equal rule for public education. Because this ruling originated in the Supreme Court, it had national implications. This decision required the desegregation of schools across America (Cozzens, 1998). This decision had no immediate effect on segregation in public areas such as restaurants, restrooms, or on buses. The Jim Crow laws were still a prevalent part of the American South. It only effected schools, but it laid the ground work for the abolishment of discrimination in other areas of society as well. It was a landmark victory for the Civil Rights movement.
Reasoning Behind the Decision
The official opinion so Chief Justice Warren can be read in its entirety at www.nps.gov.His primary task was to determine if the separate schools for blacks was unconstitutional. He referred to the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Warren pointed out in his final opinion that the Plessy v Ferguson case had little to do with the Brown v Board of Education case as the decision was from a society that no longer resembled the society in 1954. He stressed that the Plessy decision was set against post-civil war America and that societal opinions and values had changed considerably since that time. He therefore ruled that the Plessy case could not be used as a valid argument to support this case, as it had little similarity to the circumstances that had led to Brown v Board of Education (Supreme Court, Opinion, Brown v Board of Education, 1954).
Justice Warren made the following comment concerning the relevancy of the Plessy case to the Brown case:
Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected” (Opinion, Justice Warren, Brown v Board of Education, 1954).
Justice Warren added that at the time of the Plessy decision, most schools were owned and operated by private white citizens. The idea of public schools, supported by taxes was not established as of yet. This made the situation of the decision a very different scenario than the present one involving a public school supported by tax dollars.
In rendering his final decision, Justice Warren referred to the decisions in six previous cases regarding the “separate but equal” doctrine. His commentary on the cases is as follows;
In this Court, there have been six cases involving the “separate but equal” doctrine in the field of public education. In Cumming v. County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528, and Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78, the validity of the doctrine itself was not challenged. In more recent cases, all on the graduate school level, inequality was found in that specific benefits enjoyed by white students were denied to Negro students of the same educational qualifications. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337; Sipuel v. Oklahoma, 332 U.S. 631; Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637. In none of these cases was it necessary to reexamine the doctrine to grant relief to the Negro plaintiff. And in Sweatt v. Painter, supra, the Court expressly reserved decision on the question whether Plessy v. Ferguson should be held inapplicable to public education” (Opinion, Justice Warren, Brown v Board of Education, 1954).
In rendering decisions on cases, judges often refer to previous cases to help them make a decision. This is called “establishing Precedence.” By using previously established precedence, judges can maintain consistency in the legal system. In order to be considered precedence, a case must be directly related to the one at hand. As discussed previously, the Plessy case did not establish precedence for the Brown case because the social situations and culture surrounding the case were irrelevant to the current situation. The cases which the Judge chose to compare for established precedence were recent cases regarding the “separate but Equal” clause. This was the key principle behind the…