Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise Image Strip of Linda Brown walking to school, girl taking test at desk, Nettie Hunt and daughter with newspaper headline on steps of Supreme Court, present day children raising hands, children at computers
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The History of Brown v. Board of Education Full History
Introduction | “Separate but Equal” | Moton Students Have Had Enough | The Legal Strategy | The Road to Brown | Their Day in Court | The Community to the Rescue |
Back Before the Court | The Aftermath

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 away.

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.

“Separate but Equal”
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.

Moton Students Have Had Enough
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 NAACP.

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.

The Legal Strategy
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.”

The Road to Brown
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 as well.

The lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court announced that it would consolidate all five cases under Brown v. Board of Education.

The fight was on.

Their Day in Court
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 schools.

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 Community to the Rescue
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 community.

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.

Back Before the Court
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 Aftermath
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 1970's.

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.”

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