In 1849, the Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the city of Boston had done nothing improper when it required a 5-year-old African American girl, Sarah Robert, to walk past white elementary schools and to attend an all-black segregated school. The court rejected the argument made by her lawyers, the abolitionist and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and African American attorney Robert Morris, that segregated schooling "brand[s] a whole race with the stigma of inferiority and degradation."
In 1950, Oliver Brown, a railroad worker, filed suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, some 101 years after the Robert’s case. His daughter, 8-year-old Linda, was a third-grader at the all-black Monroe Elementary School. To reach her school, she had to walk half a mile through a railroad switchyard to catch a bus, even though an all-white elementary school was only seven blocks away.
Topeka's white lawyers argued that Monroe Elementary School was identical architecturally to Topeka's white schools. And, they noted, that there were more African American teachers than white teachers with Master's degrees. The schools were separate but equal, they insisted. Brown's attorney argued that even if the facilities were equal, the very fact of racial discrimination was detrimental to African American children.
Brown was one of 18 black Topeka parents challenging segregation. At the time that he sued the Topeka school board, similar cases were filed in Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In all but the Delaware case, lower courts had ruled that segregation in public schools was permissible as long as the separate facilities were equal. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases.
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund used sociological evidence to show that segregation harmed black children's self-esteem. The sociologist Kenneth Clark testified that 10 of 16 black children preferred a white doll to a black doll in a test. Eleven of the children said that the black doll looked "bad."
On May 17, 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court handed down its decision. It ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The court stressed that the badge of inferiority stamped on minority children by segregation hindered their full development no matter how equal the facilities. "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren.
A great deal of behind-the-scenes maneuvering took place before the court handed down its decision. The previous chief justice, Fred M. Vinson, was against striking down segregation; his sudden death led Felix Frankfurter to say privately that Vinson's death was "the first solid piece of evidence I've ever had that there really is a God."
When President Truman was succeeded in early 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the court ordered the case to be re-argued and asked the government to file another brief. The Justice Department sided with the African American plaintiffs.
President Eisenhower, who was sympathetic to Southern whites, invited Chief Justice Earl Warren to a White House dinner, where the president told him: "These [Southern whites] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes." Nevertheless, the Justice Department sided with the African American plaintiffs.
A number of the Supreme Court justices feared that ordering immediate desegregation would unleash turmoil in the South. In order to win a 9 to 0 vote on the case and the moral authority that a unanimous decision would carry, Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed in a 1955 decision that schools be desegregated with "all deliberate speed." This contradictory phrase entailed a call for gradual desegregation. At the time, 17 states had segregated school systems, and 99 percent of black students in the South attended all-black schools.
Some school districts complied immediately, including those in Washington, D.C. Military bases in the South also immediately dismantled their dual school system. But most Southern members of Congress pledged to "use all lawful means" to reverse the decision. It was not until the 1970s that some school districts, including those in Boston, Mass., Charlotte, N.C., and Louisville, Ky., were forced by the federal courts to implement busing plans to desegregate their schools.
In an editorial headlined "More Powerful Than All the Bombs," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch hailed the decision as "a great and just act of judicial statesmanship.... The great body of victors is the people of the United States. Through their Supreme Court they have thrown onto the junk heap one of the worst frauds ever devised--the specious notion that in a democracy, education could be separate and, at the same time, equal."
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