It’s been 65 years since the landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case changed the course of history in this country. Yes, it has been that long since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” has no place in the field of public education; yet, too many students are still not receiving opportunities that most of us want and seek for all children. Additionally, too many students face learning environments that are in disrepair or have a shortage of basic learning tools from pencils to paper to computers.
While you may be familiar with Brown vs. Board, you may not know these five important details about the landmark case.
1. Brown vs. Board was made up of five smaller cases.
Brown vs. Board is a culmination of five smaller cases in Virginia, South Carolina, Washington D.C., Delaware, and Kansas. From 1947 through 1951, families in these states filed suits arguing for the desegregation of their schools, seeking access to nearby neighborhood schools instead of bussing long distances to overcrowded and under-resourced schools.
In Topeka, Kansas, third-grader Linda Brown was required to make a long walk and then travel by bus to attend a school for black students even though there was a school only four blocks from her house. Because the closer school only admitted white students, she was unable to attend. Her father, Reverend Oliver Brown, sought the support and legal advice of the local NAACP, which encouraged Brown to file a case against the Topeka school district. This case became known as Oliver L. Brown et. al v. Board of Education Topeka.
In 1952, under the representation of Charles S. Scott and Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court combined the Topeka case with four other lawsuits, into a single case known today as Brown vs. Board of Education.
2. There’s a reason Topeka, Kansas headlined the case.
Topeka, Kansas and Linda Brown headlined the Supreme Court case because the segregated schools in Topeka were “substantially equal in quality,” explains Michael McConnell, professor and director of Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University. In other words, the segregated schools were performing equally enough to turn the focus to the principle of segregation.
“It’s one thing to attack segregation when separate but equal is really just a fiction, but when separate but equal is a reality, at least pretty close to it, as in Topeka, you have to go after the actual principle that segregation is wrong,” explains McConnell in a Khan Academy video on the case, “And not just wrong because it tends most of the time to lead to material disadvantage.”
To the NAACP, Topeka created an opportunity to focus on how segregated schools made black children feel less than their white peers, creating and reinforcing feelings of inferiority that are damaging to children’s self-esteem.
3. Brown did not directly overrule Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Although there’s quite a lot of social and legal history leading up to the Brown vs. Board case, a good place to start is the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson. This case legalized segregation with a ruling that “separate but equal” was fair and “was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment requiring equal protection to all,” as explained in PBS’s Slavery by Another Name. With this decision, segregation became rampant in schools, theaters, restaurants, transportation, and other public places through a series of laws and practices known as “Jim Crow.”
The Brown vs. Board case was the culmination of a “long campaign by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn Plessy,” explained Theodore Shaw, professor of law and director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law, in the Khan Academy video. The NAACP had been “chipping away at the edges of segregation, and then they turned directly to school segregation in the Brown cases.” But the Brown decision didn’t overrule Plessy directly. It was solely focused on segregation in schools, ruling that separate schools cannot be equal.
4. Brown opened the door for desegregation everywhere.
Even though Brown only prohibited segregated schools, courts began striking down segregation in public libraries, transportation, other public places, all citing the Brown case.
“The legacy of Brown vs. Board is more that it began an era, an era of change when it comes to racial justice and equality in this nation,” explained Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, in an 2012 Alliance for Excellent Education video on the landmark case. Brown was followed by pivotal moments in a desegregating America: the Montgomery bus boycott, the Little Rock Nine, sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“No civil rights movement or desegregation would have been possible without Brown,” said Shaw. “Brown was the case that cracked the edifice of Jim Crow segregation.”
5. The promise of Brown remains unfulfilled.
Even 65 years later, many of the challenges the decision sought to rectify remain. School segregation is still a widespread issue in communities across the country, with recent research showing that segregation for black students is rising in all parts of the U.S.
This new research, which comes from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, shows that the number of intensely segregated schools, or those enrolling 90 to 100 percent non-white students, has tripled from 5.7 percent in 1988 to 18.2 percent in 2016. Beyond this trend, the data also shows that:
- White students attend schools where 69 percent of the students are white.
- Black students attend schools where 47 percent of the students are black.
- Latino students attend schools where 55 percent of the students are Latino.
What’s happening to reverse these trends, and how common are integration efforts?
The Civil Rights Project says that at the federal level, the government has “no programs devoted to fostering voluntary integration of schools” and that “it has been decades since federal agencies funded significant research about effective strategies for school integration.” However, on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Brown vs. Board, the House Committee on Education and Labor announced that it would mark up two bills dedicated to school diversity and protecting students’ civil rights.
At All4Ed, we are embarking on a yearlong equity campaign to shine a light on the continuing needs of students—no matter their race, zip code, or background—and the unmet promise of Brown vs. Board.
We Want to Hear from You!
When you think about Brown vs. Board, which unmet challenge is the most important to you? What gives you hope? Share your thoughts in the comments below, visit all4ed.org/brownvboard to email us your story, or tweet your thoughts using #OurChallengeOurHope.
Resources and References
“SLAVERY by Another Name, Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson”, PBS
“The determined father who took Linda Brown by the hand and made history,” Washington Post
“Beyond Brown: pursuing the promise,” PBS
“Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” Khan Academy
Books for adults and children about Brown as curated by the Library of Congress
Six Activities for Students to Investigate School Segregation and Educational Inequality, New York Times
Ntombikayise Gladwin Gilman is a development intern at All4Ed.
Caroline Waldman is the communications and social media manager at All4Ed.