The Supreme Court: Desegregating Schools

Desegregating Schools

Let's take a close look at Warren's first landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. This case was heard for the first time during the last year of Vinson's term, but the justices could not come to a decision and put the case back on the docket to be reargued the next year. Before the next court session started, Vinson died and Warren was appointed to take his place.

In the early 1950s racial segregation in public schools was the norm across the United States. Even though all schools in a district were supposed to be equal, generally black schools were far inferior to white schools.

The case was brought in Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of a black third-grader named Linda Brown, who had to walk a mile to her black elementary school even though a white elementary school was only seven blocks from her house. Her father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her at the white school, but the principal refused to take her.

Supreme Sayings

“… 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.”

—Dr. Hugh W. Speer, an expert witness for the NAACP during the trial

Oliver Brown's next stop was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who helped the Browns challenge the decision in court. Other parents in Topeka joined Brown and the NAACP requested an injunction to stop the segregation of Topeka's public schools. The U.S. District Court heard the case in June 1951. The NAACP argued that segregated schools sent the wrong message to black children—that they were inferior to whites.

The Board of Education's response was that segregation in Topeka's schools and elsewhere prepared black children for the segregation they would face during adulthood. They also said that black Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver were still able to achieve their greatness even though they were products of segregated schools.

Just the Facts

Plessy v. Ferguson, decided by the court in 1896, allowed an entire system of segregation of public facilities including schools, libraries, bus stations, and bathrooms. The lone dissenter on this case was Justice John Harlan (who served on the court from 1877 to 1912) who wrote, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law …. The present decision … will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.”

The district court ruled that while they agreed that segregation had a detrimental effect upon colored children by giving them a sense of inferiority, they must rule in favor of the Board of Education because of a long standing precedent Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed separate but equal school systems for blacks and whites. The Supreme Court had not yet reversed that position.

This was the controversy that faced Warren during his first year on the court. After the case was heard in December 1953, Warren lead his first conference to discuss the case. At the start of the conference Warren told the justices that he just wanted to discuss the case informally, but did not plan to take a vote. By the end of the conference Warren counted five or maybe six of the nine votes in favor of desegregation. He knew if the Supreme Court was going to rule in favor of desegregation he wanted it to be a unanimous ruling.

After the first conference he worked behind the scenes for about a month to garner support for the unanimous decision. Warren structured the second conference to concentrate on remedy rather than the more contentious question of overturning Plessy. The greatest concern of those in the judicial restraint camp was the possibility of devastating social upheaval if the court forced desegregation. To get around that concern and secure unanimity, the conclusion at that second conference was the court would support desegregation but ask for reargument about how to desegregate. This would give time for the country to adjust to the idea of desegregation and give flexibility about how it could be obtained.

Warren took the assignment to write the decision and continued to work behind closed doors with the other justices to draft an opinion that all would sign. He wanted to avoid any chance of dissenting opinions. Finally on May 17, 1954, Warren read the decision, which concluded:

“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.”

Supreme Sayings

Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia declared the Brown decision “the most serious blow that has yet been struck against the rights of the states in a matter vitally affecting their authority and welfare.”

The Supreme Court did not fully overturn Plessy, but only struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine for public education. The Court did not specify a time frame for desegregation, but did declare segregation, which was allowed or mandatory in 21 states, unconstitutional. By not stating a time frame for desegregation the Court found middle ground giving time for the public and the states to adjust to the change and figure out the best way to do it.

The firestorm of words started quickly. Southern senators and governors quickly pounced on the decision. Most said they would never agree to desegregation and some even thought a second civil war was possible. The next year the Supreme Court published its second ruling related to how desegregation should be implemented and left it to the district courts to manage the process. The two decisions opened the flood gates and the country faced years of battles, both in the courts and on the streets, before true desegregation existed in the school system. By the 1960s the Warren Court declared all types of segregation in public facilities unconstitutional. We'll talk more about this issue in Keeping Things Equal.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.