Brown v. Board of Education and Equal Protection

Posted February 3, 2011 in Landmark Court Cases by Heather McGowan

Black History Month promotes learning about and reflecting upon civil rights issues, including the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. The US Supreme Court decided this case on May 17, 1954, and overturned another landmark case, Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court held that segregation practices denied students equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

  • In education, the Brown case decided separate could not be equal
  • Education fell within civil rights protections
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Case Background

This landmark case consolidated class action cases from four states: Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. The plaintiffs were students, and shared the common legal issue of seeking court help to obtain admission to public schools regardless of their race. The facts and conditions varied in each case, but all students claimed segregation policies deprived them of equal protection rights.

In three of the cases, a three-judge panel for the US District Court ruled against the students based on the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. In the Delaware case, the Supreme Court of Delaware ruled that students were to be admitted to superior white schools.

The issues of equal protection rights as applied to education were important, and the US Supreme Court accepted the cases for review.

The Court’s Decision

The Court ruled that segregation in public schools based on race alone deprived students in the minority group of equal education opportunities. In the 50 years since the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, courts had not decided whether the doctrine of separate but equal applied in education. The Court found that since the 1800’s, education had become one of the most important functions of state and local government. Where the state provided education, it had to do so on equal terms.

The Court took into account the intangible impacts of segregation. Equality in "tangible" factors, such as physical facilities, faculty and curricula did not matter. Separate couldn’t be equal. When students were separated based on race, minorities were in effect rendered inferior. The impact of the sense of inferiority could limit the benefits students could ever hope to gain from their public education. Some benefits were only possible in an integrated school system.

Putting Brown in Action

In a case known as "Brown II," the Court addressed how desegregation would take place. Segregation problems were local in nature, and demanded local solutions. The Court ordered that the district courts would retain authority over the cases as school districts worked to reach full compliance.

The Court directed the school districts and the district courts to take action with "all deliberate speed," and in good faith to implement desegregation. Some critics argued that these directions allowed some states and school districts to delay integration. For example, school systems were shut down in some states, funds were given to private segregated schools or integration included only a few students, and wasn’t meaningful.

Finally, in the late 1970’s, a case known as "Brown III" challenged open enrollment policies of Topeka Public Schools. One of the plaintiffs in Brown III, Linda Brown Smith, was a plaintiff in the first Brown case, and was now a parent with children enrolled in Topeka schools. By 1999, the school district eliminated remaining segregation and reached "unified status."

Education is a basic government function, and it’s protected by your constitutional rights.

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