Paralegal Guide: Brown v. Board of Education
Before the milestone Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, 17 states required racial segregation in public schools, including Texas, Florida, and Virginia. Ironically, Kansas, from which the titular plaintiff Oliver L. Brown filed his lawsuit, was not one of these states where segregation was required although this practice was nevertheless the norm in Topeka and was enforced by law. His desire for his daughter Linda to attend an elementary school for white students, as opposed to a black school that was much further away from their residence, attracted the notice of the NAACP and soon his was one of five separate lawsuits that contributed to the Supreme Court’s ruling to ban all segregation of black and white schools nationwide.
The following guide provides some historical background on the state of the country before, during, and after the Brown decision, but also focuses on providing as many official documents as are available online for free in order to serve as part of the broader resource for law students and legal professionals. Otherwise, anyone curious about the case will find also a host of introductory resources in each section that provide historical context. Finally, anyone looking for a broad overview of Brown’s impact can skip to the “Miscellaneous Sources” section below where organizations that played a major part in, or grew out of, desegregation can be found.
Segregation: The Country Before Brown
At the start of the 1950s, segregation of schools (and businesses, public transportation, etc.) was a decision left up to state law as per the 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which specifically addressed the segregation of railway cars. Homer Plessy was 1/8th African American but was nevertheless asked to leave a railway car designated for white passengers, which he refused. After the dispute had reached the Supreme Court, the justices (John Marshall Harlan dissenting) determined that the separation of white and colored cars in no way implied a difference in quality. This led to the infamous precedent of “separate but equal” that would justify segregation for the next 60 years.
Several important challenges to this policy, which was overwhelmingly enforced in the South and mostly prohibited in Northern states, preceded the Brown decision.
For example, African American master’s student, George McLaurin, attempted to enroll in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma in 1950 and, after suing the institution, was finally admitted. However, as the sole black student, he was forced to eat and study at separate tables from white students. McLaurin continued to push for equal treatment until OU’s policy was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision that called for desegregation of institutes of higher learning.
Similar strides toward integration were made in Texas the same year when the state quickly set up an all-African American law school for a black student, Heman Marion Sweatt, who wished to attend a white law school. The quality of the black school was put under scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sweatt v. Painter, revealing major flaws in the practical application of the “separate but equal” ideology.
- Jim Crow Bibliography, from the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library of Cornell University, is a list of several dozen books and articles. Titles include Jim Crow America by Earl Conrad and From Jim Crow to Civil Rights by Michael J. Klarman.
- McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents is the full text of a case leading up the 1954 Brown decision involving a black university student who sought to pursue a doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture provides some of the historical background for the decision.
- Mendez v. Westminster was an important step toward Brown in that it desegregated white students and students with Mexican heritage in California. The document itself and some educational supplements can be found on LearnCalifornia.org.
- Plessy v. Ferguson, from Cornell University Law School, is the full text of the 1896 case that left the question of segregation/integration up to states. Cornell’s database of cases also includes Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
- The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a highly visual timeline provided by PBS, relates the history of racial discrimination from emancipation (1863) to Brown (1954). Text descriptions of important points on the timeline, often accompanied by audio and video clips, are included.
- Separate but Equal? The Road to Brown is a detailed education section from the University of Missouri Kansas City’s School of Law that provides background on the state of segregation from 1896 to 1964. Both long articles and full texts on most of the major cases, including Brown and Plessy, are provided as well.
- Sweatt v. Painter: Archival and Textual Sources is both a guide to the historic case in which facilities for black law students were shown to be inadequate compared to those of whites, and a compilation of full-text legal documents. Everything from court transcripts to articles from contemporary newspapers are included on Professor Thomas D. Russell’s site.
The Case Itself
Oliver L. Brown became the figurehead for over a dozen parents who filed the famous suit in 1951. After attempting to enroll their children in white schools that were within their districts, and being denied, the NAACP took up their cause in the U.S. District Court which determined that there was no egregious inequality between black and white schools in Topeka. However, theirs was not the only suit of this nature and the Supreme Court eventually decided to rule on Brown as one of five similar cases from around the country, all NAACP-backed attempts at desegregation. Besides the Kansas case, these were:
- Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County from Virginia
- Belton v. Gebhart from Delaware
- Briggs v. Elliot from South Carolina
- Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe from the District of Columbia
The decisions on these individual cases can be read in full on Howard University School of Law’s website and quick background information about them is available from the Congress of Racial Equality’s website.
Although only a majority of justices on the Supreme Court was necessary to execute the nationwide integration of public schools, the justices sought a unanimous decision in order to avoid a severe backlash from the segregated South. After the death of Fred M. Vinson, who was opposed to the decision, the last holdouts were Stanley Reed and Robert Jackson who were later convinced by newly appointed (1953) Chief Justice Earl Warren. Warren succeeded in gaining universal support from the nine justices and Brown was approved unanimously in 1954.
- Brown v. Board of Education: Case Brief Summary, from Lawnix, is a short assessment of the case from a legal perspective with links to related cases, such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Cooper v. Aaron. The summary quickly gives the background of the case before describing the stakes, ruling, and implications.
- The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, from the University of Michigan Law School, is one of the most comprehensive lists of legal documents surrounding the decision available in one place. The transcript of the 1952 proceedings, a letter between Justice Frankfurter and Warren, and many other relevant PDFs are available.
- Education Resources on School Desegregation is a series of introductory articles from the National Archives on about a dozen cases related to Brown v. the Board of Education. They include some of the actual cases that were part of the decision, including Davis v. County School Board and Briggs v. Elliot.
- Transcript of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), from the U.S. government’s OurDocuments website, is the actual text of the decision in full. Downloadable PDFs and images of the original documents can be viewed as well. Other documents on the website include Plessy v. Ferguson and Executive Order 10730: Desegregation of Central High School.
The Path to Desegregation
Although desegregation in Topeka itself went without major incident, there were several strong reactions to the decision in other parts of the country. Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, for example, attempted to block African American students trying to enter Little Rock Central High School in 1957 by using the National Guard, but failed when President Eisenhower forced the integration. This incident and others led to the Cooper v. Aaron decision, which overturned attempts in states to circumvent desegregation and set a precedent for states to actively implement Supreme Court decisions.
Given that that Plessy v. Ferguson was originally a case involving railway cars, a symbolic victory for desegregation came in 1960 with the Boynton v. Virginia decision, which prevented criminal convictions for black customers who entered areas of public transportation designated white-only. The decision was prompted by a group of black students who set foot inside a restaurant in a bus terminal that only served white patrons. Four years later, a similar decision was made regarding businesses located near interstate highways in the Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States case, prompted by a motel’s discrimination against African Americans. Groundbreaking measures like these eventually culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Boynton v. Virginia, from Justia.com, is the Supreme Court decision that banned segregation on public transportation. The background that led to the decision is provided in a brief preview on the website.
- Cooper v. Aaron is the full text of the Supreme Court decision to overturn opposition to desegregation in Arkansas, available from FindLaw. References to other legal documents have been hyperlinked in the FindLaw version and can also be viewed.
- Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, from Cornell University Law Library, is the decision that banned discrimination of patrons based on race as per the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. A short summary from CaseBriefs provides some context for the case.
- How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society, a long study of 1980 graduates from a select group of high schools, explores the positive and negative impacts of desegregation since the 1950s. The study is the result of the combined efforts of researchers from the University of California and Columbia University.
- Long-Term Effects of School Desegregation and School Quality, by Linda Gorman, is an article that discusses the graduation rate, and increase in quality of life, of students who attended desegregated schools. The description is from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
- Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the U.S. is a 136-page study by the National Park Service from 2000 about the historical impact of desegregation around the country. The survey goes back as far as the 1700s although extensive information about Brown and its effects begins on page 68.
- Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge, by Gary Orfield of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, is a report on the continued segregation of American schools due to factors other than federal or state law. The 33-page document provides a wealth of statistics that show the racial makeup of various metropolitan areas, suburbs, small towns, and so on.
- The State of Public School Integration, from Brown University, allows visitors to view segregation statistics for specific school districts around the country. Recent statistics (1990s and 2000s) are compared to stats from the time shortly after desegregation.
For an overview of Brown and its impact, the following resources provide basic information on the decision and its peripheral cases, and opportunities for volunteering to further the cause of desegregation. The issue is still of great importance today due to white flight, segregation along income lines, and other factors. The list is dominated by civil rights and heritage organizations, such as CORE and the NAACP, for whom spreading awareness of milestones in racial equality is one goal.
- Brown v. Board of Education is a part of Streetlaw.org’s Landmark Cases of the Supreme Court section and serves as a detailed guide and teaching resource. Discussion questions, background articles at three different reading levels, activities, and important excerpts from the document itself are included.
- Civil Rights Documents Web Published by ACRR, although an older site, lists some of the most important documents from 1921 to 1997. These include Brown, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
- Congress of Racial Equality: Brown v. Board of Education has separate descriptions of each of the five cases involved in the 1954 decision. CORE itself is one of the largest civil rights groups in the United States and is based in New York.
- Brown v. Board of Education is the official website devoted to the national historic site in Topeka Kansas, maintained by the National Park Service. The website provides a good jumping off point for information about the case, offering a timeline, separate articles for each of the five cases, and links to other civil rights memorials.
- Brown v. Board of Education, a series of audio casts from an NPR special in 2003 and 2004, includes an interview with Thurgood Marshall, a depiction of schools before and after the decision, a review of a documentary on the subject, and many other stories. The audio files are available in Windows Media and Real Media format.
- The Brown Foundation of Topeka is both a tribute to the plaintiffs and judges involved in the historic decision and a forward-looking civil rights organization that seeks to preserve equality. The website’s “Education” section includes a “Myths vs. Truth” section, a timeline, and teaching materials.
- Nation: Segregation North and South is a 4-page archived article from Time magazine published in 1970, a time contemporaneous to the ongoing desegregation that resulted from Brown and the recent civil rights movements of the 1960s. The article discusses busing and other measures taken to better integrate schools.
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, was formed in 1909 and has been at the forefront of many of the most notable civil rights demonstrations and trials in the 20th century. The NAACP continues to champion individuals and causes who fight against racial discrimination.
- With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty is an exhibit of the Library of Congress with historical photos and pictures of documents, each accompanied by a brief description. “Discovery!” links for kids provide additional facts about the topics on display.