On May 17, 1954, at 12:52 p.m., the United States Supreme Court rendered its momentous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). The fundamental public policy that the court unanimously ruled upon is straightforward: segregated schools (established and maintained by state action) are inherently unequal. The court clearly said, through its ruling that separate but equal is, in fact, a contradiction and state sanctioned segregation is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids any state from making or enforcing any laws which deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Brown versus Board of Education

The 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Oliver L. Brown et.al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) et.al. is among the most significant judicial turning points in the development of our country. Originally led by Charles H. Houston, and later Thurgood Marshall and a formidable legal team, it dismantled the legal basis for racial segregation in schools and other public facilities.

By declaring that the discriminatory nature of racial segregation violated the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed all citizens equal protection of the laws, Brown v. Board of Education laid the foundation for shaping future national and international policies regarding human rights.

Brown v. Board of Education was not simply about children and education. The laws and policies struck down by this court decision are products of the human tendencies to prejudge, discriminate against, and stereotype other people by their ethnic, religious, physical, or cultural characteristics. Ending this behavior as a legal practice caused far reaching social and ideological implications, which continue to be felt throughout our country. The Brown decision inspired and galvanized human rights struggles across the country and around the world.

What this legal challenge represents is at the core of United States history and the freedoms enjoyed. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown began a critical chapter in the maturation of our democracy. By reaffirming the sovereign power of the people of the United States in the protection of their natural rights from arbitrary limits and restrictions imposed by state and local governments. These rights are recognized in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

While this case is an important historical milestone, it is misunderstood. Over the years, the facts pertaining to the Brown case have been overshadowed by myths and mischaracterizations:

  • Brown v. Board of Education was not the first challenge to school segregation. As early as 1849, African Americans filed suit against an educational system that mandated racial segregation; Roberts v. City of Boston.
  • Oliver Brown, the case namesake, was just one of the nearly 200 plaintiffs from five states who were part of the NAACP cases brought before the Supreme Court in 1951. The Kansas case was named for Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man head the plaintiff roster.

The Brown decision initiated educational and social reform throughout the United States and was a catalyst in launching the modern Civil Rights Movement. Bringing about change in the years since the Brown case continues to be difficult. But the Brown v. Board of Education victory brought this country one step closer to living up to its democratic ideas.

The Case

The Supreme Court combined five cases under the heading of Brown v. Board of Education, because each sought the same legal remedy. The combined cases emanated from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, DC. The following describes those cases:

Delaware – Belton v. Gebhart (Bulah v. Gebhart)

First petitioned in 1951, these local cases challenged the inferior conditions of two black schools designated for African American children. In the suburb of Claymont, African American children were prohibited from attending the area’s local high school. Instead, they had to ride a school bus for nearly an hour to attend Howard High School in Wilmington. Located in an industrial area of the state’s capital city, Howard High School also suffered from a deficient curriculum, pupil-teacher ratio, teacher training, extra curricular activities, program, and physical conditions. In the rural community of Hockessin, African American students were forced to attend a dilapidated one-room schoolhouse and were not provided transportation to the school, while white children in the area were provided transportation and a better school facility. In both cases, Louis Redding, a local NAACP attorney, represented the plaintiffs, African American parents. Although the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the decision did not apply to all schools in Delaware. These class action cases were named for Ethel Belton and Shirley Bulah.

Kansas – Brown v. Board of Education

In 1950 the Topeka NAACP, led by McKinley Burnett, set out to organize a legal challenge to an 1879 State law that permitted racially segregated elementary schools in certain cities based on population. For Kansas this would become the 12th case filed in the state focused on ending segregation in public schools. The local NAACP assembled a group of 13 parents who agreed to be plaintiffs on behalf of their 20 children. Following direction from legal counsel they attempted to enroll their children in segregated white schools and all were denied. Topeka operated eighteen neighborhood schools for white children, while African American children had access to only four schools. In February of 1951 the Topeka NAACP filed a case on their behalf. Although this was a class action it was named for one of the plaintiffs Oliver Brown

South Carolina - Briggs v. Elliot

In Claredon County, the State NAACP first attempted, unsuccessfully and with a single plaintiff, to take legal action in 1947 against the inferior conditions African American students experienced under South Carolina’s racially segregated school system. By 1951, community activist Rev. J.A. DeLaine, convinced African American parents to join the NAACP efforts to file a class action suit in U.S. District Court. The Court found that the schools designated for African Americans were grossly inadequate in terms of buildings, transportation and teacher’s salaries when compared to the schools provided for Whites. An order to equalize the facilities was virtually ignored by school officials and the schools were never made equal. This class action case was named for Harry Briggs, Sr.

Virginia – Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County

One of the few public high schools available to African Americans in the state was Robert Moton High School in Prince Edward County. Built in 1943, it was never large enough to accommodate its student population. Eventually, hastily constructed tar paper covered buildings were added as classrooms. The gross inadequacies of these classrooms sparked a student strike in 1951. Organized by sixteen year old Barbara Johns, the students initially sought to acquire a new building with indoor plumbing. The NAACP soon joined their struggles and challenged the inferior quality of their school facilities in court. Although the U.S. District Court ordered that the plaintiffs be provided with equal school facilities, they were denied access to the white schools in their area. This class action case was named for Dorothy Davis.

Washington, DC – Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe

Eleven African American Junior High School students were taken on a field trip to the cities new modern John Phillip Sousa School for whites only. Accompanied by local activist Gardner Bishop, who requested admittance for the students and was denied, the African American students were ordered to return to their grossly inadequate school. A suit was filed on their behalf in 1951. After reviewing the Brown case in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, segregation in the District of Columbia public schools was a rejection of due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. This class action case was named for Spottswood Bolling.

The landmark court decision of Brown versus Board of Education is considered the single most important court decision in American educational history.The court overturned the Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” clause, which denied African Americans students their constitutional right to education guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment.Ironically, the parties represented in the Brown case wanted the same rights as many parents of today, student achievement. Over fifty years have passed and African American students’ achievement continues to be a major hurdle for the current educational system.

One of the most significant, unintended consequences of the Brown decision is how this legal ruling diminished the presence of African American professional role models. Furthermore, it is important to reveal how the historical characteristics of educators as, counselor, advocate, disciplinarian, surrogate parent, and role model promoted the academic achievement of African American students.

On the surface the importance of the Brown decision is evident however, one of the first negative impacts for Blacks stemming from desegregation was the dismissal and demotion of Black principals and teachers. In 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down, there were approximately 80,000 Black teachers. By 1964, over 35,000 Black teachers and administrators lost their positions in 17 Southern and Border States. During the three-year period from 1967 to 1970, the number of Black principals in North Carolina declined from 670 to 170; in Alabama from 250 to 40; in Mississippi from 250 to almost zero. As a result of the displacement of such a large number of Black administrators and teachers, a whole generation of Black educators was lost.Organizations such as the NACCP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Dushane Fund of the National Education Association, local NACCP branches, and local Black community leaders provided counsel and occasional financial assistance to displaced and dismissed teachers and administrators.

Fifty years after the Brown decision and there remains a need for relevant role models for African American children and youth. Students of color need teachers of color in their learning environment to ensure higher aspirations, improved achievement, and their sense of self worth advanced rather than diminished.

African American students had limited contact with African American teachers and administrators on their campuses and in their classrooms due to this imbalance. Black students went from schools where all of their teachers and principals were Black to schools where most, if not all were White.Furthermore, White teachers who were culturally unaware of African American life, norms, customs, family, and community values were teaching Black students.

What people experience on a day-to-day influences future outcomes…So if students are growing up in schools where they do not see Black teachers, Black principals, or Black superintendents, why would they considering education as a profession?

With the continuing decrease in the ratio of Black teachers to the number of Black students in schools today, the likelihood of these student encountering an African American role model is proving to be hampered. Operating a school system with limited African American leadership perpetuates the myth that professions in education are not suitable for African American students. Furthermore, the shrinking African American pool of teachers is partly a consequence of how the Brown decision was implemented by White policy makers.

All students need exposure to African American teachers and administrators as role models; curriculum needs to be revised to include more aspects of African American history and culture. If African American student success is the primary objective then Non African American teachers and administrators need to better understand, embrace and accept diversity.