Brown v. Board of Education

Published 27 Feb 2017

The case filed in behalf of third-grader Linda Brown and some of her peers is an inspiring piece of reading not only for young, black students whose ancestors had suffered years of institutional discrimination, but also for other minorities who endured with them, and the White Americans who were brought up to reject all forms of discrimination. Brown v. Board of Education was indeed a landmark case. It not only correctly pointed out that it is never enough for government to provide minority groups with facilities so that they could be taught how to read and write. More importantly, it emphasized that in order to fully satisfy the educational and developmental needs of Blacks and other minorities, they should be completely assimilated into the American society.

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Linda Brown, like many of her black peers, was granted the opportunity to go to school. However, as was the practice during the 1950s, she and her fellow black students were only allowed to attend a school for Blacks. In other words, they were physically segregated from the white students. Thus, forced to keep their distance, they were prevented from getting in close contact with Whites, thereby denying them the opportunity to mingle, socialize, make friends, and learn with the white students. Aside from being segregated, there were observations that the schools assigned to black students never measured up to the standards of the schools attended by Whites as far as facilities were concerned. This was in spite of what the law said during those times: that all schools – whether they cater to the white or the black population – should be equally equipped. That disgusting situation provided the setting for Brown v. Board of Education (Cozzens, 1998).

Linda lived only seven blocks away from a good elementary school. However, she had to walk one mile everyday to reach her school and be able to attend her classes. The reason was simple: the school located seven blocks from where she lived was a school designated only for Whites. In 1950 however, her parents decided to ignore the segregation policy of the school and tried to have Linda enrolled in the nearer school so that she would not have to walk two miles each day just to attend her classes. The problem arose when she was turned away by the school principal who insisted on implementing the school’s policy of segregation (Cozzens, 1998).
After the principal of the elementary school for Whites refused to admit Linda, her father, Oliver Brown, sought the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Topeka, Kansas branch headed by McKinley Burnett immediately took up the case because it had been eager to launch a legal challenge against the issue of segregation which was practiced in public schools at the time. The NAACP brought together thirteen parents and directed them to enroll their twenty children in schools for Whites. During that time in Topeka, eighteen schools were allotted for white children while only four schools were accessible to black children. When all twenty children were denied admission to schools for Whites, the NAACP made all the parents plaintiffs in a class suit it filed in their behalf against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. The case was named after Oliver Brown, Linda Brown’s father (Brown Foundation, 2004).

So it was that in February 1951, the NAACP filed a request for injunction for the purpose of prohibiting segregation in the public schools located in Topeka, Kansas. In effect, the Brown case challenged the constitutionality of the law which was passed by the Kansas legislature in 1879 allowing racial segregation in the state’s elementary schools. (Brown Foundation, 2004). The case was heard by the District Court of Kansas for two days – from June 25-26, 1951. The NAACP argued for the plaintiffs that segregating the Blacks from their White peers effectively resulted to a feeling of inferiority being cultivated among the black students. Therefore, they argued, segregation placed the schools for Blacks and Whites on unequal footings regardless of the facilities made available to both schools. Specifically, Dr. Hugh W. Speer, appearing as an expert witness for the complaining parents, said:

…if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represent 90 percent of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child’s curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation (Cozzens, 1998).

The Board of Education, on the other hand, defended its policy by stating that segregation did not really harm the black children. On the contrary, it claimed that separating them from the white children at an early age actually prepared them for the real world where Blacks were also segregated from Whites. Although the court agreed with the plaintiffs that the ensuing feeling of inferiority among black children consequently affected their learning motivations, the judges declared that they had to decide in favor of the Board of Education because of a precedent case – Plessy v. Ferguson – which “allowed separate but equal school systems for blacks and whites.” Not satisfied with the decision of the District Court, the plaintiffs elevated the case to the Supreme Court on October 1, 1951 (Cozzens, 1998).

The case was finally heard at the United States Supreme Court on December 9, 1952. When the court failed to arrive at a decision, it was reargued one year later, on December 7 and 8, 1953. During the reargument, both parties were requested to debate on the circumstances which existed when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868. The purpose was to determine whether segregation really denied the black children of their rights to equal protection. However, after the debate failed to cast additional and substantial light on the problem at hand, the court resolved that the case should be decided not on the basis of “whether or not the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment had desegregated schools in mind when they wrote the amendment in 1868, but … whether or not desegregated schools deprived black children of equal protection of the law” at that time. Five months later, the decision of the Supreme Court was finally handed down – on May 17, 1954 (Cozzens, 1998).

There was unanimity among the justices of the Supreme Court in deciding for the plaintiffs, thereby reversing the decision of the District Court of Kansas. The decision, which was read by Chief Justice Earl Warren, follows:
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does…We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (Cozzens, 1998).

Hence, the United States Supreme Court, in deciding in favor of the black children, finally overturned the decision made earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled that segregation in public schools indeed violated the constitution. In explaining its decision, the Court said that one of the most important functions of government – whether state or local – is education. This, according to the justices, has been explicitly shown in the laws which have already been passed providing for compulsory attendance in school and also by the substantial budgets allocated to education. As a matter of fact, the Court said that education is required before one can even perform his or her “most basic public responsibilities” or join the armed services of the country. The court then went on to enumerate the other important functions of education: that of being a vital instrument for the development of cultural values; as a preparation for a profession; and as an aid to a child’s normal adjustment to his or her surroundings. The Court also made known its doubt that a child who has been denied of proper education could succeed in life given the circumstances that existed in1954. In view of the foregoing, the Court declared that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” (FindLaw, n.d.).

The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education started the desegregation of public schools in the United States. However, the case meant so much more than just the desires of black children to co-exist and learn with their white peers. For starters, it spurred and incited the struggle for human rights in the country. The victory brought forth by Brown v. Board of Education not only encouraged but emboldened Blacks and other minorities to start fighting for their rights in other fields as well such as the racial segregation being practiced in public transportation and in public eating places (Brown Foundation, 2004). As a matter of fact, third-grader Linda Brown might have been in the back of Rosa Park’s mind when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955 and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott which went on for more than one year and culminated in the desegregation of buses on December 21, 1956 (Brunner and Haney, 2007).

The Brown v. Board of Education was one of the most important turning points in the judicial jurisprudence of the country that contributed to the overall development of the United States. When the decision of the Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the future policies concerning human rights were subsequently shaped. Aside from ushering in the ripening of democracy in the country, it reasserted the sovereign power of Americans in protecting their natural rights under the constitution from the “arbitrary limits and restrictions imposed by state and local governments.” Linda Brown, therefore, sent her message across, clearly and audibly (Brown Foundation, 2004).


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