George C. E. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, James M. Nabrit (l-r) in front of the Supreme court, after winning Brown v. Board of Education.
The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. Linda Brown was denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka because she was black. When, combined with several other cases, her suit reached the Supreme Court, that body, in an opinion by recently appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, broke with long tradition and unanimously overruled the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, holding for the first time that de jure segregation in the public schools violated the principle of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Responding to legal and sociological arguments presented by NAACP lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall, the court stressed that the "badge of inferiority" stamped on minority children by segregation hindered their full development no matter how "equal" physical facilities might be. After hearing further arguments on implementation, the court declared in 1955 that schools must be desegregated "with all deliberate speed."
Restricted in application to de jure (legally imposed) segregation, the Brown rule was applied mainly to Southern school systems. After strong resistance, which led to such incidents as the 1957 Little Rock, Ark., school crisis, integration spread slowly across the South, under court orders and the threat of loss of federal funds for noncompliance.
The Brown decision gave tremendous impetus to the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and hastened integration in public facilities and accommodations. Segregation maintained by more subtle and intractable forces, however, has remained an important element in American society. De facto school segregation, caused by residential housing patterns and various other conditions rather than by law, has been attacked by the busing of students and other mechanisms.
The landmark decision is commemorated by the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2003, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.