v. Board of Education was actually two U.S.
Supreme Court decisions. Brown I, 347 U.S.
483, argued Dec. 9, 1952, reargued Dec. 8, 1953,
decided May 17, 1954 by a vote of 9 to 0, opinion
written by Warren; and Brown II,
349 U.S. 294, in which the question of relief
was reargued April 11-14, 1954, decided May
31, 1955 by a vote of 9 to 0, opinion written
The decisions culminated a litigation campaign by the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its legal unit, the Legal Defense
and Education Fund, Inc., begun twenty years earlier. Beginning in the 1930s,
the NAACP brought suit at the state and then the federal level challenging
the "Jim Crow laws“state-imposed racial segregation in public accommodations
and in education. The primary obstacle to dismantling the Jim Crow system
was the Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896),
in which the Court determined that state-imposed racial segregation in public
facilities was not "unreasonable" and so did not violate the Equal Protection
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The deterioration of Plessy as authority for state-imposed
segregation began in 1938 when the Supreme Court in Missouri ex rel. Gaines
v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337, invalidated Missouri's out-of-state tuition
program for African-American law students.
A significant event took place in 1948, when the U.S.
Attorney General signed an amicus curiae brief in a race case, Shelley
v. Kramer, 334 U.S. 1 (restrictive covenants were unconstitutional).
This signaled the federal government's symbolic support for the NAACP's long
term strategy. Two years later the Court invalidated segregation in graduate
school (McLaurin v.Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, 339
U.S. 637) and in law schools (Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629). Both
opinions noted the inequality of facilities created by Jim Crow, but for
the first time disapproved of the intangible but real harms of racial segregation.
The most difficult obstacle
to ending segregation in public education
was the scope of relief. When Brown was
first argued in 1952 the Court was divided
on how and at what pace to order relief. It
was the untimely death of Chief Justice Fred
Vinson that allowed the Court to move forward.
The new chief justice, Earl Warren, was able
to convince his colleagues to decide the merits
in one opinion and to defer the question of relief
to a second opinion following reargument. His most
significant accomplishment may have been presenting
a unanimous vote and opinion. He had to convince
at least two justices not to file opinions
they had already begun drafting, Robert H.
Jackson, a concurrence and Stanley F. Reed,
a dissent. The Court's unanimity has
been praised as one of the strengths of the
opinions. Brown I was additionally
praised for the manner in which Warren wrote
the opinion. It was short (10 pages), non-accusatory,
and non-technical. Warren wanted the opinion
understood by layman and even reprinted in
the public press.
Many hoped that Brown II would lay out a plan
for the desegregation of the nation's public schools. The NAACP had urged
desegregation to proceed immediately or at least with specific deadlines.
The Court feared a violent reaction if they ordered desegregation at a pace
the states could not or would not accept. The Court used the phrase "with
all deliberate speed" in ordering the states to begin desegregation. The
financial burden of producing desegregation plans was placed on the plaintiffs
and the NAACP, none of whom could afford such costs. Some hoped, maybe even
assumed, the Department of Justice, which had participated in all of the
Brown arguments, would support the plaintiffs. President
Eisenhower avoided the issue and promised only "to obey the law of the land."
Brown II was criticized for its lack of clarity
and its weakening of the moral position of Brown I.
Because of the lack of direction in Brown II the
Court had to reexplain and even reestablish the principle in every subsequent
segregation case. Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958), was the first
significant legal test of the enforcement of Brown. In another unanimous
decision actually signed by all of the justices, the Court held that postponing
plans for desegregation in good faith and even in the interest of preserving
public peace would violate black students' rights under the Equal Protection
Clause. The Court clearly reminded the states' governors and legislators
they were bound by the Supremacy Clause to uphold decisions of the Supreme
Court. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S.
430 (1968), the Court held that compliance with Brown II required
not simply abolition of state-imposed segregative practices but the effective
desegregation of formerly segregated schools. Busing for racial balance was
a natural outcome of Green, which the Court confirmed in Swann
v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971).
On some levels Brown was ineffective. A decade after
the first decision, less than 2 percent of formerly segregated school districts
had experienced any desegregation. Yet the goals of Brown prompted
passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Go to our web
page to learn more about Brown and its
impact on American education. There are links
to digital displays with timelines and extensive
photo archives. The display case outside the
entrance to the library contains some of the
significant documents related to Brown
and additional reading material.