Jefferson - Enlightenment: Brown v. Board of Education - Racial Segregation in Public Schools Brown v. Board of Education
Issue: Racial Segregation in Public Schools

Racial Segregtion in Schools
Thurgood Marshall with James Nabrit Jr. and George E.C. Hayes
after their victory in the Brown v. Board of Education case
before the Supreme Court, May 17, 1954.

Photograph courtesy of UPI / Corbis-Bettmann

Further Internet Study
The Issue Before the Court
Summary and Excerpt of Ruling
Results of the Ruling
Discussion Ideas


Thomas Jefferson was a champion of universal education for all citizens, but in the culture in which he wrote, black slaves were not considered citizens. Jefferson saw the institution of slavery as an evil, even though he continued the practice of slave ownership. Jefferson's own contradictory actions toward his slaves were symbolic of the paradox that would describe race relations and equality in education for African-Americans. The nation would have to suffer through a bloody civil war and over one hundred years of racial strife to arrive at a time when a more equitable education could be available to all Americans.

The landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) settled the question of whether or not blacks and whites can receive an education integrated with or separate from each other. The case overturned the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the doctrine of "separate but equal." This concept stated that separate public facilities of equal quality do not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which reads:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Linda Brown was an eight year old black child who had to cross Topeka, Kansas to attend grade school, while her white friends were able to attend classes at a public school just a few blocks away. The Topeka School system was segregated on the basis of race, and under the separate but equal doctrine, this arrangement was acceptable and legal. Linda's parents sued in federal district court on the basis that separate facilities for blacks were inherently unequal. The lower courts agreed with the school system that if the facilities were equal, the child was being treated equally with whites as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Browns and other families in other school systems appealed to the Supreme Court that even facilities that were physically equal did not take into account "intangible" factors, and that segregation itself has a deleterious effect on the education of black children. Their case was encouraged by the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice on the Supreme Court.

Further Internet Study

Selected Historic Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court -

The Issue Before the Court:

Does racial segregation of children in public schools deprive minority children of equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment?

Supreme Court Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously to end racial segregation in public schools.

Summary and Excerpt of Ruling

The high court ruled unanimously to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The decision of the court was delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. After outlining the facts of the case and history of the Court's thinking on the "separate but equal" doctrine, Warren stressed the importance of education in the consciousness of American life:

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

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."

The rational of the Court's decision was based on the dehumanizing effects of segregation:

"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."
The basis of the decision rests on the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies the standard of equality to the actions of the states as well as the Federal government in a concept known in legal circles as "incorporation." Warren wrote:

"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."

Results of the Ruling:

The Brown case signaled the end of "de jure" segregation in the United States, that is, segregation of public places that is mandated by law. Once the Brown decision was handed down, the African-American community, along with forward-thinking white Americans, placed sufficient pressure on the legal and political system to bring an end to state-supported segregation in all public facilities within twenty years through the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The nation paid a high price for its moral conversion in the form of riots, assassination, and additional government programs to enforce the Court's decision such as court-ordered busing and affirmative action. Americans soon found that Congress and the Courts were unable to change the attitudes of Americans in respect to race relations. Certainly, America moved toward the ideals of equality and justice in the public arena, but as seen in the race riots of the 1960s and the civil disturbances in Los Angeles in 1992, the inner life of the nation is still resistant to change.

Discussion Ideas

Race hatred and violence have not been completely eradicated since the Brown decision. Indeed, another type of segregation can still be seen in many schools and neighborhoods. It is known as "de facto" segregation, and it results from prejudices and stereotypes that separate our communities. Nevertheless, it was the Court's mandate in Brown v. Board of Education that forced Americans to face each other and determine if they were willing to live up to the ideals that are written in the Constitution.

In essence, this is the same dilemma that Jefferson faced in his time.

What evidence can you gather that the United States has made progress in its efforts to apply Jefferson's words that "all men are created equal?" What evidence is there that this concept has not been fully realized?

What can you do to eliminate prejudices and stereotypes?