The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education led to the integration of public schools in America. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the historical background to the case and why it was so significant, after which you’ll test your own knowledge of Brown v. Board of Education with a brief quiz.
Background and Civil War Amendments
Brown v. Board of Education was a 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that brought about the integration of public schools. The decision was one of many judicial and legislative efforts made to achieve racial equality, efforts that began with the Civil War Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These included:
- Thirteenth Amendment – Ratified in 1865 and prohibited slavery in the United States
- Fourteenth Amendment – Ratified in 1868 and promised equal protection under the law regardless of race
- Fifteenth Amendment – Ratified in 1870 and guaranteed African-American men the right to vote
Following the ratification of the Civil War Amendments, some states, particularly those in the South, passed a series of laws restricting the rights of African Americans. The Jim Crow laws mandated separation of African Americans and whites in public restroom facilities, on public transportation, in restaurants, and when using drinking fountains. Public schools were also segregated, or separated into black and white schools.
According to the Jim Crow laws, segregated facilities were okay because they were separate but equal. In 1896, the Supreme Court considered the validity of ‘separate but equal’ in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Homer Plessy was a native of Louisiana, a black man of Creole descent, who challenged segregation by intentionally sitting in the white section of a rail car.
Plessy was arrested for his actions, and his case eventually reached the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that as long as the separate facilities were equal, they were constitutional. But as anyone who ever had to use ‘colored’ restrooms or schools knew, these facilities were consistently inferior and subpar. This was the claim of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.
Contrary to popular belief, Brown v. Board of Education actually consisted of five individual but comparable court cases that the Supreme Court ruled on simultaneously. In addition to Brown v. Board of Education, they included:
- Oliver L. Brown et al v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
- Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County, Virginia
- Boiling v. Sharpe
- Gebhart v. Ethel
While the cases were different in nature, they all made the same claim: separate is not equal. Plaintiffs’ cases were handled by the famous civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The plaintiffs were primarily parents of students of color. They claimed their children were not receiving educations equal to their white counterparts.
The Supreme Court finally ruled on these cases on May 14th, 1954. It found that, in regards to public education, the doctrine of separate but equal had no place and was not constitutional.
In Brown v. Board of Education, schools had to be integrated, a change that did not take place overnight. Many school districts instituted plans of gradual integration. Often, these efforts were met by resistance and violence. For example, in 1957, the Little Rock Nine braved an angry crowd as the first students to integrate a school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education not only helped to integrate America’s public schools but also served as an important catalyst in bringing change to other areas of the public domain, where the separate but equal doctrine remained.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that overturned the ‘separate but equal’ approach to public schooling. Segregated schools, as well as public restrooms and transportation, drinking fountains, and restaurants, came about as the result of Jim Crow laws.
Southern states passed Jim Crow laws in response to the Civil War Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and with the intention of preventing African Americans from fully integrating into white society. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law, and gave African-American men the right to vote.
Plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education case were represented by the famous civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. In its decision, the Supreme Court reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which originally upheld the ‘separate but equal’ laws.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- List the Civil War Amendments and describe the South’s response
- Recall the ruling of the Plessy v. Ferguson case
- State the central claim to the cases included in Brown v. Board of Education
- Name the person and organization who presided over the plaintiffs’ case
- Discuss the Supreme Court’s verdict on the case
- Explain the significance of the decision