In 1950, the rules of racial segregation governed the most minute
details of social life in much of the United States — and
the rules of segregation defied all logic. Linda Brown, a seven-year-old
third grader in Topeka, Kansas, had to walk six blocks to catch
the black school bus, when there was a school — a white school
— seven blocks from her home.
In the fall of 1950, Linda Brown's father and 12 other Topeka families,
handpicked by the The National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) because there was no way they could be painted
as dangerous radicals, tried to enroll their children in their neighborhood
white schools. One after another, the black families were turned
The NAACP went to court. Along with four other cases against segregation
and inequality in education, the suit brought by Linda Brown's father
and the other black families would go on to become one of the most
significant Supreme Court cases in American history. Known as Brown
v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, the cases overturned
decades of legally-sanctioned racial segregation in the United States,
and became widely known as the most significant Supreme Court case
in American history.
Since the infamous Plessy decision in 1896, which gave legal sanction
to racial segregation under the “separate but equal”
principle, education in the south was strictly separate —
but distinctly unequal. School systems as a matter of course invested
in education for whites while starving black schools for resources.
Fifty years after the Plessy decision, separate and unequal facilities
were still the norm in the south. Seventeen southern and border
states required racial segregation of public schools and four others
— Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming — permitted
it. And black students continued to hold the short end of the stick
with regard to resources: in 1952, the average southern state spent
fifty percent more for each white child.
But the African American community was growing restless for change.
The sacrifices of black soldiers in World War II, and the relative
freedom they experienced in Europe, led many African Americans to
support bolder demands for equality. The NAACP had expanded during
and after the war years, with membership soaring to nearly 400,000
nationally. The rate of growth in the South, where repression and
inequality was greatest, surpassed that in all other regions.
In 1950, public schools in Prince Edward County, VA, were still
as segregated as they could be: while white students spent their
days in clean classrooms with new books and equipment, black students
in the county were crammed into crumbling, overcrowded schools stocked
with hand-me-down books. The highest-paid teacher at Moton High,
the single high school in the county open to African Americans,
earned less than the lowest-paid white teacher in all of the county.
Moton had neither a cafeteria nor a gym, and with twice as many
students enrolled as the school was built to hold, some classes
at Moton had to be conducted on school buses.
Government and other white leaders dismissed black aspirations.
According to the Saturday Evening Post, one city leader said, “If
the Negroes wanted a library or a swimming pool, we'd help them
get it. But they're not interested. They want pool rooms and dance
halls... That's what they've got, and they're happy with it. We
have a saying around here: Be a Negro on Saturday night and you'll
never want to be a white man again.”
By 1951, Moton High School students were convinced that they had
to take matters into their own hands. They placed a bogus call to
their principal, forged his signature, and called their own assembly.
Alone in the auditorium, the students of Moton planned a strike
to demand improvements. “The town jail can hold a few of us,”
one student challenged, “but not all 450.”
On the third day of the strike, the students called the only lawyer
they knew, a man named Spottswood Robinson, who worked with the
A month later, attorneys out of New York with the NAACP Legal Defense
Fund filed suit on behalf of 117 Moton High School students. Instead
of demanding improvements at Moton, the suit asked that the state
of Virginia abolish segregation in the schools.
When the students of Moton High went on strike, African American
lawyers Charles Hamilton Houston and his protégé, Thurgood Marshall,
had already been plotting a legal attack on segregation for decades.
Segregation in education was their first target, because the right
to education was so central to American values.
Houston and Marshall had first gone after all-white professional
schools at southern state universities. No state could afford separate
law or medical schools for African Americans, they reasoned, so
the courts would force them to admit black students to live up to
the “equal” in “separate but equal.”
The strategy worked. In 1935, Marshall, fresh out of law school,
and Houston won admission for a black student to the University
of Maryland Law School. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court
forced the admission of a black student to the law school at the
University of Missouri.
By 1950, the NAACP's legal team had won three critical Supreme Court
cases mandating the admission of individual black students to particular
graduate schools. But in each case, the Court had refused to reconsider
the legality of segregation. Plessy's 1896 formulation of “separate
but equal” remained the law of the land.
That year, 1950, was also a pivotal year for other reasons: Charles
Hamilton Houston, who had built the first and only cadre of civil
rights lawyers in the country, died. Jack Greenberg, who would eventually
become Thurgood Marshall's successor as the head of the NAACP legal
team, joined the staff.
And in a heated day-long closed-door conference, Marshall and the
others came to a difficult but critical decision: rather than pushing
for the equality implied by “separate but equal,” all
future cases would demand racial integration. The African American
community had waited long enough. The lawyers would attack Plessy
directly, and force the courts, and the nation, to either defend
segregation openly, or make the United States true to its principles.
Full and immediate desegregation was now the official goal of the
NAACP. “No relief other than that,” their statement
read, “will be acceptable.”
Not all African Americans were in full agreement with the NAACP's
argument that segregation was inherently damaging. Some, like W.E.B.
DuBois, argued that some measure of black “self-segregation”
could bolster black independence and culture. Celebrated writer
Zora Neale Hurston would argue that beneath an integrationist strategy
lay a false notion of black inferiority — why, indeed, should
African Americans argue that their children learn best under the
tutelage of white teachers, sitting next to white students?
But Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers of the Legal Defense Fund,
working with local NAACP organizers, went out looking for good cases
that would get them before the Supreme Court.
One came from Clarendon County, South Carolina, where there were
47 black students per class, to 28 white, and where black schools
had neither bathrooms nor electricity. Another case came from the
District of Columbia, where eleven black students sued for admission
to an all-white District of Columbia junior high school near their
homes rather than an overcrowded black school far away. A third
was from Delaware, where black children were barred from schools
in the suburban Wilmington towns where they lived, and instead had
to travel to the black one-room schoolhouse miles away.
And in Topeka Kansas, the NAACP lawyers found a case they believed
would be ideal to press their cause in the courts. There, segregated
black schools were already virtually equal to those attended by
whites, and public transportation was offered to all children living
within a certain distance of school. But Linda Brown, a seven-year-old
third grader, walked six blocks to catch the school bus to be driven
to a school a mile from her home — when there was a school,
a white school — seven blocks from her home.
Thurgood Marshall went to Topeka to court Oliver Brown, Linda's
father. In the fall of 1950, the Browns and 12 other Topeka families
tried to enroll their children in their neighborhood white schools.
When they were rejected, the NAACP went to court, in the case that
became known as Brown v. Board of Education.
By the end of 1951, when the Browns' suit was filed in the Kansas
courts, the NAACP had five strong cases in play — all of which
were aimed directly at legal segregation. Early the next year, a
three-judge Federal court ruled on one: separate schools in Prince
Edward, Virginia, where black high school students had gone on strike,
were merely consistent with “southern mores.” Over the
course of 1952, the NAACP lost every one of the other four cases
The lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court announced
that it would consolidate all five cases under Brown v. Board
The fight was on.
The Court scheduled the hearing for the end of 1952. The NAACP lawyers
worked relentlessly to prepare, holding dry runs in a classroom
at Howard University law school, where their mentor, Charles Hamilton
Houston, had held forth, and where most of them had been trained.
With black newspapers and churches across the country trumpeting
the news of this momentous occasion, the African American community
also looked eagerly forward to a day when their aspirations would
be put before the highest court in the land. As the day of the argument
dawned, long lines of spectators lined up outside the visitors'
entrance of the Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the other side made an impassioned argument relying
on “states' rights” logic, and stressed that the southern
states had already equalized schools or were in the process of doing
so. The NAACP's side, presented by a battery of lawyers, argued
that segregation clearly violated the 14th amendment and was therefore
unconstitutional. The NAACP also presented what would become legendary
doll study of Dr. Kenneth Clark, in which black children were shown
to prefer white dolls — evidence, according to the NAACP,
of the lasting damage to self-esteem done to black children in segregated
At the end of the arguments, NAACP lawyers were optimistic; Thurgood
Marshall even projected that they would win three of the five cases
before the court. They were astonished when in June 1953, the Court
essentially through them a curve ball: rather than coming to a decision,
the Court announced that the cases had to be reargued that December
— and gave each side five questions to consider the next time
around. The questions included one about what the framers of the
14th Amendment to the Constitution, passed after the Civil War,
were thinking about school segregation.
For Marshall and the NAACP, it was back to the drawing board.
The Legal Defense Fund faced a financial crisis. The Brown
cases had already cost tens of thousands of hard-earned dollars;
now, with the reargument mandated by the court, the NAACP was looking
at an additional $39,000 — an astronomical sum in 1953 dollars.
The lawyers hit the road to appeal for support. More than any sector
— including labor unions and foundations — the African
American community came through: black newspapers started a campaign
that raised $14,000 under what the Baltimore Afro-American called
“dollar or more will open the door”; the black teachers'
union put up $5,000; and Charles Buchanan, owner of the Savoy Ballroom
in Harlem, contributed $500 so the NAACP could purchase new law
books. Rose Morgan, who owned a large beauty salon in Harlem, gave
$5,000; the African American fraternity Prince Hall Masons contributed
$20,000 from lodges all over the country; and the South Carolina
and Virginia branches of NAACP contributed $5,000 each. By the time
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP returned to the Supreme Court in
December 1953, the Legal Defense Fund had the needed $39,000 in
hand — most of it raised directly from the African American
In September 1953, just two months before the NAACP went back into
court, Chief Justice Vinson died and President Eisenhower appointed
Earl Warren, governor of California, as the new Supreme Court chief
justice. Eisenhower was confident that Warren, in accordance with
his own wishes, would follow a moderate course of action toward
desegregation. Eisenhower would later say that appointing Warren
was “the biggest damn fool mistake” he'd made.
As December approached, Thurgood Marshall assembled a team of historians,
social scientists, legal scholars and practicing lawyers to plow
through the history of the Constitution and Reconstruction, analyze
relevant case law, and develop arguments. The group included historians
John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward; Kenneth Clark; and William
Penrose, dean of the University of Delaware.
Of the five questions posed by the Supreme Court justices in advance
of the reargument, the most important asked whether, if the Court
found segregation Unconstitutional, black students had to be admitted
to schools of their choice “forthwith,” or whether the
Court could permit an “effective gradual adjustment.”
Working at breakneck speed, Marshalls's team wrote hundreds of pages
in answer to this and the Court's other questions.
That December 7, the lawyers of the NAACP walked hopefully back
into the Supreme Court. This was the NAACP's shot, Marshall believed.
If they failed, segregation would again be given sanction by he
highest court in the land, and African Americans would for another
generation be condemned to second-class citizenship.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl
Warren, ruled unanimously in favor of the NAACP. In a unanimous
decision, the Court declared that “... in the field of public
education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no
place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The Brown decision has since been known as the single most
important Supreme Court decision in American history.
The NAACP had won the battle, but the fight was not yet over. The
Court worried about resistance of the south to its ruling. When
it came time to deciding on full and immediate desegregation (as
the NAACP had demanded) or gradual implementation, the justices
chose what might have seemed like a middle path: schools, they said,
should be desegregated with “all deliberate speed.”
In practice, this allowed intransigent southern governments and
school boards to delay desegregation of public schools well into
The decade following the decision brought simmering tensions to
the surface — while Southern blacks strove to realize the
promise of Brown, “massive resistance” by Southern
whites and the equivocal response of the federal government made
real progress halting.
Still, the victory in Brown v. Board of Education was a major
turning point in the struggle for civil rights. In the words of
attorney Jack Greenberg, Brown “destroyed the edifice of legitimacy
upon which Plessy had placed segregation, laid the foundation for
the civil rights movement, and revolutionized the notions of what
courts, lawyers, and the law might do to expand racial justice.”