Understanding Brown v. Board of Education: A Case Summary

Children of many races in math class

Table of Contents

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is one of the most celebrated decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history. It's main holding, that segregated schools are inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional, was both an important legal precedent and a decision with a huge social impact.

Much has been written over the decades about this landmark case, decided on May 17, 1954. Legal scholars still argue over Brown v. Board's impact today, as well as the legal and social underpinnings of the decision. It remains one of the few Supreme Court cases that many Americans know by name, and its importance to both American education and American jurisprudence is hard to overstate.

Background and Facts of the Case

The case was the culmination of decades of work by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, had worked to integrate schools through the courts since the 1930s. Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first black Supreme Court justice, argued the case on behalf of the NAACP and the plaintiffs. They argued that keeping black students separate from white students violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Brown v. Board of Education was a consolidated case, meaning that several related cases were combined to be heard before the Supreme Court. The NAACP had helped families in Delaware, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Kansas challenge the constitutionality of all-white schools.

The representative plaintiff in the case was Oliver Brown, a pastor in Topeka, Kansas. He tried to enroll his daughter in a white school that was closer to the Brown's home. The school board refused. The NAACP chose the Brown family because they perceived them to be the most sympathetic plaintiff. That is why the case is called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, even though the case involved plaintiffs in multiple states. Most simply refer to it as Brown v. Board.

The Supreme Court took the relatively unusual step in Brown v. Board of hearing oral arguments twice, once in 1953 and again in 1954. The second round of oral arguments was almost entirely about the circumstances of the Fourteenth Amendment's passage and its intended effect on public education.

The Fourteenth Amendment

A full understanding of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board requires some background knowledge of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as cases interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment in the context of school integration up to that point.

The states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It was one of three Reconstruction-era Amendments passed to give civil and legal rights to black citizens and former slaves after the Civil War. Part of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." These are the due process and equal protection clauses, respectively.

Plessy v. Ferguson and the Separate but Equal Doctrine

If black Americans were entitled to equal protection of the laws since 1868, how was school segregation legal? In Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, the Supreme Court held that laws keeping black and other minority populations apart from the white population did not violate the equal protection clause, provided minorities had equivalent facilities and services. This became known as the “separate but equal" doctrine, and it was the law throughout the first half of the 20th century. It meant that there could be "whites only" drinking fountains, for example, provided that there was also a drinking fountain nearby for minorities.

Fighting Back Against Plessy

By the time the Supreme Court decided Brown in 1954, courts had already begun to chip away at the main holding in Plessy. Even as early as 1938, the Supreme Court held in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada that if a state offers a legal education, it must be offered to students of any race. That means if there is only one law school, for example, then that law school must admit black students. Most notably, in 1950, the Supreme Court held in McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education that a graduate school could not force a black student to sit alone in class, at the library, and in the cafeteria. That holding did not explicitly invalidate Plessy, however.

The Lower Courts' Decisions

Despite a few cases on their side, the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board were fighting against a significant history of laws and court decisions promoting segregation. This was the predominant reason why the plaintiffs lost in lower courts. For example, in Kansas the lower court agreed with the plaintiffs that segregation harmed black children. However, the district court held that black schools had equivalent facilities and teachers, and so white schools could continue to refuse admittance to black students. In other words, the district court did not invalidate Plessy v. Ferguson. In Delaware, the district court did not invalidate Plessy either, but still held that white schools had to accept black students because black schools in the state were of lower quality.

It would take the Supreme Court to overturn its own precedent set in Plessy. That is exactly what the NAACP and the families in Brown were arguing for in 1954. As it turned out, they had a Supreme Court that was receptive to their arguments.

The Warren Court

Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over the Supreme Court in 1954. President Eisenhower had appointed Justice Warren to the bench in 1953, so the Chief Justice was relatively new to the position at the time Brown was decided. However, as a two-term governor of California and a vice presidential running mate, he was no stranger to the public eye. While Brown remains one of the Warren Court's most prominent decisions, it was by no means the only significant civil rights case the court decided. The Warren Court is responsible for the Miranda warning and the one person, one vote rule, to give just two examples.

The Decision in Brown

It was Chief Justice Warren, writing for a unanimous court, who penned the famous line that “in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." The court explicitly overturned Plessy, finding that segregation in schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The school board had argued that at the time it was enacted, the states that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend for it to prohibit school segregation. This is what's known as an "originalist" reading of the Constitution. The Warren Court, despite asking at length about the history and circumstances of the Fourteenth Amendment, ultimately did not use an originalist reading of the Constitution in its decision. Instead, Justice Warren calls an examination of the history of the Fourteenth Amendment “at best, inconclusive" regarding the Amendment's intended effect on public schools. “We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation," the Chief Justice wrote. And segregated schools, the Supreme Court justices agreed, affected the hearts and minds of black children “in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Because segregated schools were inherently unequal, there could be no such thing as "separate but equal" and Plessy was finally overturned.

What the Brown Decision Did Not Do

The court, having held that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, did not examine whether it also violated the due process clause.

And while impactful, the decision in Brown was not as expansive as it might at first appear. The decision did not declare all segregated public facilities to be unconstitutional. Its holding was limited to schools. Nor did the court give a date for schools to comply with the decision.

The rather limited holding also meant that the Supreme Court needed to issue a subsequent decision on school integration just a year later.

Brown II

In 1955, the Warren Court again took up school integration in a case now known as Brown II. In that decision, the Warren Court left it up to the states to determine when and how to integrate schools, provided they did so “with all deliberate speed." This vague direction led to many states and school districts dragging their feet to integrate schools. School integration did not begin for many black children until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and integration and racial inequality in schools remain much-discussed issues to this day.

Brown v. Board's Lasting Impact

Few people now question whether the Warren Court reached the right decision in Brown. However, the underlying legal argument - whether an “originalist" reading of the Constitution should be used to decide current social issues of national importance, or whether the court should take into account current-day circumstances and thought – remains controversial.

Still, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is an important case, and not just for ending segregation in education. It was used as precedent to overturn other laws mandating or permitting segregation. And while racial inequality in America's schools continues, Brown v. Board helped to spark the civil rights movement, and began a long journey toward a more equal educational system in America.

Read the full decision on FindLaw.