Brown V. Board of Education: 50 Years Later

Roundup: Talking About History

Justin Ewers, in U.S. News & World Report (March 22, 2004):

Brown v. Board of Education is remembered as a case of simple justice. In the fall of 1950, the story goes, Linda Brown, a 7-year-old girl living in Topeka, Kan., had to travel 21 blocks each day, by foot and by bus, to get to her all-black elementary school. Yet only seven blocks from her home was another elementary school--a school for whites only. Her father, Oliver Brown, asked that she be allowed to enroll there instead. When the principal refused, Brown sued. Two years later, Linda's long walk ended in the highest court in the land.

The rest, of course, is history. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision that had cemented the "Jim Crow" notion of "separate but equal" into American law. Twenty-one states' school segregation laws, affecting nearly 12 million black and white children in more than 11,000 school districts, were swept away. "Probably no case ever to come before the nation's highest tribunal affected more directly the minds, hearts, and daily lives of so many Americans," writes historian Richard Kluger in Simple Justice, his definitive history of the decision.

But there is more to the case than meets the eye. "The problem with the mythology around Brown," says Cheryl Brown Henderson, Oliver Brown's youngest daughter, "is not only that it's oversimplified; a lot of it is just not true." For one thing, she points out, her father was hardly the only plaintiff in the case; in Topeka alone, there were 13 claimants in the suit against the city's Board of Education. By the time Brown reached the Supreme Court, the case had been combined with four others, involving nearly 200 plaintiffs from three states and the District of Columbia --all with similar complaints about long commutes or inadequate schools--under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Uncertain. And as right as it feels today, the case was hardly a sure thing. "The fact that it was a unanimous decision makes it seem like it was easy," says Michael Klarman, author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: the Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, "but it easily could have come out the other way." Indeed, historians say, the decision--and the future of segregation in America --rested on more than the injustice of Linda Brown's unnecessary hike to school, on more than the systemic inequities in public schools at the time, or the eloquent arguments made for inclusion. In the end, Brown hinged on the death of the chief justice of the United States --and, ultimately, on the man who replaced him.

It started, though, with a public school system that had failed its public. "Most people don't know how unequal education really was" before Brown, says Klarman. Compared with schools in the South, Topeka --which had integrated its secondary schools well before 1954--was a mild case. In Clarendon County , S.C. , for example, Joseph De Laine Jr., went to a school with 10 teachers, almost 800 kids, and no indoor plumbing. "Even to us as children at the time, we recognized the fact of the inequity, and of course we were bitter about it, but it happened to be a fact of life," says De Laine, whose father, a pastor, would be instrumental in bringing to court one of the other Brown cases, Briggs v. Elliot....

By 1950, the first cracks in segregation had already appeared. In 1947, California had abolished segregated schools, and Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in baseball. A year later, President Truman desegregated the armed forces. And in 1950, Thurgood Marshall, then a young lawyer working as lead counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, won three landmark cases desegregating graduate programs (a relatively easy target since, apart from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a medical school in Nashville, the South didn't offer black students any graduate education at all). ...

The justices heard arguments in December 1952 but were too divided to come to a decision. On one end was Justice Hugo Black, who said that segregation was "Hitler's creed--he preached what the South believed." At the other end was Justice Stanley Reed, a southerner who had gone along with a decision the year before to desegregate restaurants in Washington, only to go outside after the conference and reportedly exclaim, "Why--why, this means that a nigra can walk into the restaurant at the Mayflower and sit down to eat at the table right next to Mrs. Reed."

In an unusual step, the case was pushed back a year so the attorneys could research the original intentions of the framers of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. A few months before Brown was to be reheard, however, the foes of segregation caught a break. On the night of Sept. 8, 1953 , Chief Justice Vinson died of a massive heart attack. Justice Felix Frankfurter reportedly remarked to a law clerk not long afterward: "This is the first indication I have ever had that there is a God." Less than three weeks later, the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, nominated a replacement: Earl Warren, the Republican governor of California . ...

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Nick Eggen - 10/26/2005

Since you, Mr. Bernstein, have dissected this article and forced a flaw in Mr. Ewers' eloquent depiction of a significantly important historical event, I will do the same to your response. I find it pathetic that someone with such disdain towards the US News can stir up a fuss over a simple misunderstanding of two similar words.

Let's go back to grammar school and learn the definitions of "overturn" and "overrule". Shall we?

Overturn: invalidate, destroy.
Overrule: to rule against, to set aside.

While the Brown v. The Board of Education did not nullify the Plessy v. Ferugson case, it did halt segregation in schools. Finding that there was an unequal advantage for white children, the case "set aside" the "seperate but equal" stigma and focused on integrating white and black children. To discredit such a trustworthy news source about integrating races imposes that you did not seem to understand the much larger topic of discussion: racism. And to help you understand more about your snivelling comment, this important trial helped surge the United States into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, of which you apparently care so much about.

Personally, I found Mr. Ewers' article to be extremely informative and clarify common confusions about a trial that helped start America down the correct path.

Kudos, Mr. Ewers. Kudos.

kenneth j bernstein - 3/19/2004

the piece from Justin Eewers says " On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson"

Well, the opinion was unanimous, and segregated schools were declared unconstitutional, but Plessy was NOT overtunred, as the newspapers of the day noted.

Remember the logic of the decision -- segregated schools were inherently unequal, therefore the separate but equal test of Plessy could not be met.

Plessy has never been overturned. All changes since Brown have been by legislative action.

Had Brown overturned Plessy, we would not have needed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The inaccuracy of the statement I quoted is oen reason why I lend little credence to US News