TOPICS > Politics

Brown v. Board of Education

May 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

BILL KURTIS: The decision rendered by the Supreme Court in 1954 is often referred to simply as Brown v. Board. The full title of the ruling cites Oliver L. Brown as the lead plaintiff. The lifelong resident of Topeka, Kansas, Oliver Brown was employed as a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad. He also served as an assistant pastor at a local church. He passed away in 1961, but his youngest daughter, Cheryl Brown Henderson, continues to play an active role in educating others about this case and her family’s role in it.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON, The Brown Foundation: The neighborhood we lived in was an integrated neighborhood along first street, and every morning the African American children that lived along that stretch, that block or two, would head off in one direction, and the white children living next door would head off in another direction. And for the children, I don’t think it was problematic. You know, kids are very accepting of how they live. The African American schools were good schools. The facilities were built by the same person, so we’re not talking about substandard facilities with leaky roofs and outhouses, like they were in the south. The teachers were well-trained. Many of them had advanced degrees. So we aren’t talking about a poor education. You know, we are not talking about having to walk miles because in South Carolina, the children walked ten miles. In Topeka, they walked a few blocks and caught a bus. So we weren’t talking about real hardships here. We were talking about the principle of the thing.

BILL KURTIS: While many black families in Topeka may have been satisfied with their schools, a move got under way to challenge the system. It was led by the U.S. Army veteran McKinley Burnett.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: So basically McKinley Burnette, who was the NAACP chairperson, really issued a rallying cry, if you will, for two years, 1948 to 1950. Mr. Burnett attended every single school board meeting. He would take petitions with him on occasion, but really trying to get on the public comment part of the agenda so that he could talk about this business of simply opting to integrate the public elementary schools in Topeka. Well, unfortunately, Mr. Burnett never had a chance to be heard out. He never had a chance to say his piece.

BILL KURTIS: After patiently enduring the continued snubbing by the Topeka school board, McKinley Burnett decided to forge ahead with a legal challenge. He joined forces with the Scott family law firm, local attorneys who also possessed strong conviction in the principle of racial equality, as Charles Scott Jr., explains.

CHARLES SCOTT, JR., Son of Topeka Lawyer: My father, my uncle John Scott, and an attorney called Charles Bledsoe, they were exploring ways to mount a challenge, to challenge the segregation in the Topeka public school system.

BILL KURTIS: In consultation with the national office of the NAACP, the local group in Topeka decided to proceed with a class-action lawsuit. All of the plaintiffs who signed on were female except for Oliver Brown, a close friend of Charles Scott.

LEOLA MONTGOMERY, Oliver Brown’s Wife: At first he didn’t want to do it because all the ladies, you know, and he was one man, he just really didn’t want to do it. But they prevailed upon him and he finally consented to be one of the plaintiffs.

BILL KURTIS: Linda Thompson still remembers the day that her father, Oliver Brown, attempted to enroll her at Sumner Elementary.

LINDA THOMPSON, Oliver Brown’s Daughter: And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal, and they left me out to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand, and we walked home from the school, and I just couldn’t understand what was happening, you know, because I was so sure that I was going to get to go to school with Mona, Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.

LEOLA MONTGOMERY: He came back and reported to me what had transpired: That the principal over there told him it wasn’t he who was against the integrated schools, but it was the school board, and there was nothing he could do about it at that time.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: So at that point the plaintiffs, after this test, you know, pretty much got to go back to their everyday lives. It was left to the legal team to come up with all the legal strategy and do all the research to put together a case. But in February of 1951, February 28, I believe, it was actually filed. And it was at that point that the case became known for my dad, Oliver Brown.

BILL KURTIS: Within a week after attorney Charles Bledsoe paid $15 to formally file the complaint, a three-judge panel was designated to hear the case. They scheduled the trial to commence on June 25, 1951.

RONALD GRIFFIN, Washington University School of Law: On the front end, they wanted to determine whether separate and equal, which is the standard, had been furnished to youngsters attending public schools in Topeka, Kansas.

BILL KURTIS: Back in 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled in the case known as Plessey v. Ferguson that separate facilities for white and colored people were permissible so long as they were judged to be equal.

RONALD GRIFFIN: As the case evolved, the question presented was whether segregation stigmatized children and wounded them in a psychological way and made state-sponsored segregation something that was constitutionally unsupportable.

BILL KURTIS: The judges of the district court acknowledged the validity of the argument related to the psychological impact of segregation, but they could not issue a decision contrary to the Supreme Court and its ruling in the Plessey case of 1896. On Aug. 3, 1951, the U.S. District Court in Kansas upheld the right of the Topeka school board to maintain segregated schools.

RONALD GRIFFIN: The three-judge district panel, as you know, decided that the schools were both separate and equal, but in a part of the three-judge district court opinion, there is some reference to the evidence submitted on the psychological damage done by state-sponsored segregation. That eventually appeared in the Supreme Court opinion.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: The unique thing about the Kansas case, again — and I guess because we lived this, living in Topeka — but the unique thing for us here in Kansas, the presiding judge of this three- judge panel that compromised the federal district court here in Topeka, Walter Huxsman, had been the governor of Kansas before he became a federal district court judge, and I think Judge Huxman really thought long and hard about how he could craft his opinion in such a way that the Supreme Court would have to make a definitive decision about this notion of segregated public schools. So I think it was very politically savvy on his part not to go against custom or against the current law, but to still write it in such a way that left the question open.

BILL KURTIS: After the district court ruled against the plaintiffs, an appeal was filed on their behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, proceeding to combine with it four other cases of a similar nature.

ROGER WILKINS, George Mason University: The case was argued in the 1952 term of the court and the court, headed by Chief Justice Benson, could not come to a conclusion. And so it punted the way courts do and said “go answer a bunch of questions.” And so that summer, the NAACP lawyers worked very hard to answer those questions, and before the court reconvened, Chief Justice Benson died and President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren of California to succeed Benson.

BILL KURTIS: Earl Warren was sworn in as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in October of 1953.

SPOKESMAN: Governor of his state for ten years, Earl Warren will be the second Republican on the Supreme Court. He will preside over a tribunal which is faced with history-making decisions.

BILL KURTIS: On May 17, 1954, the court announced its decision in a landmark case that would radically alter the case of American history. Oliver Brown’s wife, Leola, recalls how she reacted when she first heard news.

LEOLA MONTGOMERY: I was waiting. I remember, I was home doing the family ironing that day when the decision was handed down. I was home, all the kids were in school, my husband had gone to work, and I’m at home doing that. And when it came over and they said that it had been… segregation had been defeated, was outlawed, oh, boy, I think I was doing the dance there at home by myself. (Laughs) I was so elated. I could hardly wait until my kids and my husband got home to relate to them.

BILL KURTIS: Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the court.

WALTER CRONKITE: Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessey v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessey v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude unanimously that in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

CHERYL BROWN HENDERSON: What the Brown decision did was it broke the silence. It made the country start talking about racism and segregation and discrimination and second-class citizenship and all of those things. Because if you look at Brown and everything that came after– the Civil Rights Act ten years later in 1964; the voting rights act one year later; even before that, after the Montgomery bus boycott, the Supreme Court decision that ended the practice of segregation, you know, in transportation– all of those things emanate from the Brown decision.

BILL KURTIS: Undeniably, Brown v. Board has left an lasting impression on American society. In conjunction with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision, the National Park Service has renovated Monroe School in Topeka and opened a new museum there where visitors can learn about this case and its contribution to the struggle for civil rights in this nation.