Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For almost sixty years, racial segregation had been established by law in the United States. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education changed race relations, mandating an end to segregation in public education.

Summary of Event

Segregation of blacks and whites in the United States is the most obvious of the racial problems that have faced the nation, because black people form one of its largest racial minorities and have been the object of laws, as well as customs, which have kept them from full participation in social and economic life. Many of the laws imposing racial segregation dealt with public schools’ segregation of children based on their race. Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation Supreme Court, U.S.;education Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Segregation;public education Education;segregation Civil rights;United States African Americans;segregation [kw]Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation (May 17, 1954) [kw]School Segregation, Supreme Court Ends Public (May 17, 1954) [kw]Segregation, Supreme Court Ends Public School (May 17, 1954) Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation Supreme Court, U.S.;education Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Segregation;public education Education;segregation Civil rights;United States African Americans;segregation [g]North America;May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation[04470] [g]United States;May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation[04470] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation[04470] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation[04470] [c]Education;May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation[04470] [c]Social issues and reform;May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation[04470] Warren, Earl Marshall, Thurgood Davis, John W.

Legal segregation began in the United States in the years following the Civil War. Since black people were declared equal citizens to whites by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, a new basis for race relations needed to be worked out to replace the prewar master-slave status. Because most black people lived in the states which had formed the Confederacy, the problem of race relations was more intense in the South.

In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States was asked to settle the question of whether forcing black people to use separate facilities was a violation of the constitutional guarantees of equality. The case in question, Plessy v. Ferguson, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) involved streetcars in New Orleans, Louisiana. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that “equal but separate” facilities did not violate the demands of the Constitution. (The more commonly quoted phrase “separate but equal” is taken from the dissenting opinion in that case, as well as from the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.) Based on this decision, a number of states passed laws that demanded racial segregation in almost every aspect of life, from restaurants to public schools to the ballot box, with most black people losing the right to vote.

Many African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, accepted the reality of segregation and did not openly challenge the system. White political leaders, in southern and border states, found they could whip up enthusiasm for their candidacies and could win votes by making strong and emotional supports of segregation. This separation of the races was reinforced by the economic conditions of the period from 1920 to 1940, when agricultural and blue-collar industrial workers were competing for jobs. In this economic competition, race was an easily identified and easily exploited factor. Black workers were accused of accepting lower wages and of being strikebreakers.

If the “separate” aspect of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was honored, the “equal” was quickly forgotten. In the twenty-one states which either required or permitted segregation, salaries for African American teachers were about one-half those for white teachers, and the amount of money spent for each black pupil was about one-fourth that spent on each white pupil. In the states of the old Confederacy and in the border states, separate schools with enrollment based on race were a universal practice. Such segregation was not uncommon in the rest of the nation. In some cases separate schools were maintained contrary to state law. Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans were often the subjects of segregation in western states.

Although segregation was widespread, the practice was under attack by 1950. President Harry S. Truman had ordered the desegregation of facilities belonging to the federal government, and the armed forces were beginning to integrate their units. Also, five suits challenging the validity of public school segregation had been introduced before the federal courts of various districts. These cases involved the public schools of Clarendon County, South Carolina; Prince Edward County, Virginia; Topeka, Kansas; Wilmington, Delaware; and Washington, D.C. These were all “class action” suits, meaning that any decision reached in them would apply not just to the people who had brought suit but also to any others in the same district who suffered the same discrimination.

All five of these cases were heard by the Supreme Court of the United States under Chief Justice Earl Warren. In order to make sure that all aspects of this sensitive and important issue were covered, the Supreme Court ordered certain aspects of the cases reargued in 1953. At this point, all five cases were consolidated and listed alphabetically. This listing meant that the first case on the docket would be Brown, et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, or as it would be better known, Brown v. Board of Education.

The nation’s oldest civil rights organization is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;litigation (NAACP). This group traditionally has challenged discriminatory practices through lawsuits. The chief counsel for this group who would argue the case before the Supreme Court was Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was a veteran of many court battles over racial discrimination and was eager to demonstrate not only that segregation was unfair under the Constitution but also that the practice was psychologically damaging to African Americans, especially black children. To assist him in making this point, Marshall invited several prominent social scientists to study the situation in Topeka, Kansas, and to comment on the psychological impact of segregation. It was the opinion of this group that assigning a particular group to separate facilities identified this group as having a lower status than other people. This evaluation of having a lower status became damaging to the segregated group by lowering its members’ self-esteem.

The defendants in the case assembled a team of lawyers led by John W. Davis, a corporate lawyer from New York City. Davis was a former Democratic presidential nominee and solicitor general of the United States. In his government capacity, Davis had successfully prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan and had won cases which successfully restored the right to vote to black citizens in some states. The line of defense taken by Davis was not based on racial prejudice but on the matter of states’ rights, a troublesome issue that, along with slavery, had led to the Civil War almost a century before. Davis argued that the federal government generally and the Supreme Court specifically were not qualified to take over and conduct the business of state operations such as schools.

Chief Justice Earl Warren had only recently been appointed to his post by newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;civil rights . Warren was thought to be of a conservative point of view, and many people favorable to civil rights were unsure how he would vote, especially since his record when he was governor of California gave few hints as to what his judicial opinions might be.

Both sides presented their arguments in December, 1953. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” had ceased to be the law of the land. State-enforced racial segregation in the public schools would no longer be permitted. This ruling meant that while the school districts covered in the five combined cases should be desegregated quickly, the way was also open for all other court districts to hear suits on the same basis. The unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Chief Justice Warren, left no doubt as to the outcome of future suits. The chief justice 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.” This decision in Brown v. Board of Education may well be the most momentous and far-reaching court order in the area of civil rights in the twentieth century.


It would be no exaggeration to say the decision in Brown v. Board of Education completely changed the face of the United States. Although some states tried to resist the process of integration of public schools for a time, their resistance was doomed to fail. When President Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to enforce school desegregation, it became clear that the impact of Brown v. Board of Education would be universal. No state would be able to impose its will on the national Supreme Court.

Within ten years, many public schools had been integrated by race. After fifteen years, virtually all public schools had ended segregation. One reaction to desegregation was the creation of numerous private schools, often connected with churches, in which the student body was all white. Students in the integrated public schools found common ground, and joint achievement in extracurricular activities such as music and sports soon drew favorable public attention. For example, in 1964 three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1980, the same town held a parade honoring Marcus Dupree, a black football player at the local high school. With the breakdown of segregation in public schools, the task of attacking race separation in other aspects of life also became easier.

The integration of public schools did not produce national heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead, there were many heroic individuals such as the black children who walked through crowds of yelling protesters to enter the schools, the white students who violated the customs of their communities to welcome their black classmates, and community leaders such as the Nashville Tennessean newspaper editor who advocated peaceful acceptance of integration as the proper action.

It should not be assumed that integration of public schools solved the matter of race relations in the schools or in society at large. Issues such as busing students to other schools to achieve racial balance, employment opportunities for black teachers and administrators, “white flight” to private or suburban schools, inclusion of black history in the curriculum, and the events and ideas to be emphasized in teaching the history of the Civil War would all cause problems and debate following 1954. Indeed, some black leaders would come to call for all-black schools and colleges as a means of preserving a black culture and heritage.

Leslie W. Dunbar Dunbar, Leslie W. , a white Southern teacher, consultant, and community organizer, sums up the impact of the Supreme Court decision very well:

I think Brown v. Board of Education has a very special historical claim. I guess you could say the same thing, in a way, about 1865, with the Thirteenth Amendment [which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude]. But that got ignored. Up until Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, segregation had been legal. Up to Brown v. Board of Education, the Constitutional rights of black people not to be discriminated against were, to say the least, unclear. After that, they were not. From 1954 on, it was as though the Constitution had been clarified.

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Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This book won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for its historical and personal portrayal of all the major, and many minor, characters involved in what the author calls “The King Years.” The first volume of a three-volume series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cottrol, Robert J., Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware.“Brown v. Board of Education”: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003. Places the decision in its broad historical context, while also discussing the specific institutions and individuals at the heart of the case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope, and Isidore Starr. The Negro in the Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage Books, 1967. Franklin is the “dean” of African American history. This book gives a survey of blacks in America. Book 3 contains a section dealing especially with Brown v. Board of Education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Leon. The Civil Rights Reader: Basic Documents of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Walker, 1968. The value of this book is found in its reprinting of original interviews and documents from the civil rights years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Anthony. Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1964. Lewis was a reporter who covered in person the events he describes. His firsthand involvement is backed with accurate historical research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, James T.“Brown v. Board of Education”: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This historical and legal analysis of Brown also delves into the issue of the limits of the courts’ abilities to bring about social change.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powledge, Fred. Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. The author is a journalist, born in North Carolina, who covered the Civil Rights movement for the Atlanta Journal and The New York Times. Valuable because the author has interviewed participants in the movement and has allowed them to tell their own stories of these events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Southern Education Reporting Service. With All Deliberate Speed. Edited by Don Shoemaker. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957. The date of this book shows that it deals only with the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but it provides excellent background for understanding the situation as it existed in 1957.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. “Jim Crow” was the nickname for discriminatory laws and practices. This book is the standard history of racial segregation. Frequent revisions have kept it up to date with legal, social, and historical trends.

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