Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

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NAACP attorneys in the 1930s and 1940s, led by Charles Hamilton Houston, worked hard to develop and support court cases around the country that pushed back against segregation. They celebrated some success in higher education, particularly in challenges to admissions at several medical and law schools.

However, it became clear that K-12 public schools were going to be the more difficult fight, and the most crucial, so they shifted course. The early goal of equalizing the facilities in segregated K-12 schools evolved, over time, to a more precarious focus — challenging the inherent constitutionality of racial segregation per se — and arguing that 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson should be overturned.

The principle of that infamous case.— which related specifically to the practice of racial segregation in public transportation — was routinely used as justification for allowing the same in public schools.

Then NAACP Director Counsel Thurgood Marshall, whose approach to their legal strategies had thus far been cautious, understood the risk involved: if a case involving public school segregation was lost at the Supreme Court level it would have far reaching consequences and set dangerous precedents for any court cases that followed.

But it was clear — this was the keystone civil rights issue that must be relentlessly pursued.

Marshall convened a conference in 1950 with the NAACP board of directors, local NAACP chapter presidents, and nearly four dozen affiliated attorneys. After debate and discussion, the group voted in support of a resolution to move forward with that very mission.

Marshall and the team of attorneys knew the cases they chose for this targeted assault on the constitutionality of segregation would have to fit in with a carefully coordinated strategy.

Multiple cases would need to be pursued simultaneously. They would have to come from a variety of regions and districts — not only the South.— and each should include multiple plaintiffs. This approach was intended to legitimize the legal effort by providing a significant scope of location and breadth of argument.

The strategy was put into motion, cases were developed, and the movement gained momentum.

Five Cases: Taking It to the States

South Carolina
The 1949 class action lawsuit Briggs v. Elliott hailed from Clarendon County, South Carolina. The complaint originated from a lack of access to school transportation. Black children in the community walked as far as eight miles to and from school, and local officials refused to provide the same bus service afforded to White students.

The NAACP saw this as their first opportunity to test the legal arguments for public school desegregation.

Attorney Harold Boulware, along with Marshall, filed the case on behalf of 20 parents, many of whom faced swift and striking retribution from the community. One family’s home was burned to the ground, and other plaintiffs lost their jobs.

The U.S. District Court denied the request to abolish school segregation, and this case was the first of those appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, then later consolidated under what became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

The state’s first Black civil rights attorney, Louis Redding, represented plaintiffs in two separate 1951 cases in Delaware, with the assistance of Jack Greenberg.

Bulah v. Gebhart was filed on behalf of Sarah Bulah, whose daughter was denied bus service and had to travel several miles to attend an ill-equipped one-room schoolhouse in Hockessin, while the White school nearby was well equipped and students were provided bus transportation.

Belton v. Gebhart stemmed from parents in Claymont who were frustrated with the 20 mile round trip they had to make to send their children to the poorly-appointed Howard High School in Wilmington, which was the only high school in the state open to Black students.

Though the Claymont parents had won admittance for their students to the all- White high school, Judge Collins J. Seitz’s groundbreaking ruling did not apply to the state of Delaware as a whole, so the cases were combined into Belton (Bulah) v. Gephart, and eventually also became part of Brown v. Board of Education.

For young Black students in 1951 in the commonwealth of Virginia, the only path to a high school diploma was through one of the state’s private Christian academies.

Community fundraising efforts in Prince Edward County resulted in the construction of Moton High School, where enrollment quickly surpassed the 180 students it was built to hold. To accommodate the increased number of students the school district had constructed tar paper outbuildings for use as additional classroom space.

The area school board refused to fund permanent expansion of the school. After more than 400 students staged a two-week protest against the building’s conditions they connected with the NAACP, who agreed to file suit for desegregation of the school system.

In 1951, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was argued by attorneys Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill. The U.S. District Court judges unanimously rejected the request.

This was the only one of the five cases within Brown v. Board of Education that was student-led.Kansas
The Kansas case was led by local NAACP attorneys Chales Scott, his brother John Scott, and Charles Bledsoe, with assistance from Robert Carter and Jack Greenberg, who were members of Thurgood Marshall’s national team. The case was an anomaly in the group. Black and White elementary schools in Topeka were mostly equal with regard to the quality of their buildings, teacher salaries, and teacher qualifications. Additionally, the high schools in Kansas had already been integrated since the 1800s.

However, despite two years of herculean efforts by McKinley Burnett, local NAACP chapter president, the school board refused to integrate elementary schools, regardless of the state’s legal leeway available to them to do so.

It was this blatant refusal that prompted Burnett to persuade NAACP member families and friends — 13 parents in total — to participate in a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka Public Schools.

For decades a false narrative has persisted that Oliver Brown initiated the case on behalf of his daughter Linda. In truth, he was the last to sign on, and did so reluctantly. Ironically his name was used to head the plaintiff roster, not based on alphabet, but perhaps as a legal strategy because he was a man and the other 12 plaintiffs were women.

Marshall’s team of attorneys filed, argued, and lost the case in District Court. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was combined with the three other cases.

Washington, D.C.
On the morning of Monday, September 11, 1950, Gardner Bishop, president of theConsolidated Parents Group — which had been organizing parents to act on their children’s rundown school facilities — requested the admittance of 11 Black junior high school students to the city’s new all-White Sousa Junior High School. They were turned away.

He reached out to Houston, who worked on the case independent of the NAACP. The goal was to request equal facilities for the Black students. While preparing the case that would then be filed as Bolling et al. v. C. Melvin Sharpe, et al., Houston suffered a heart attack and passed the case on to his friend James Nabritt.

Nabritt reconceived it as a challenge to segregation per se, and filed it in 1951. The U.S. District Court heard, and then dismissed, the case. While this case was not combined with those that made up Brown v. Board of Education, it was decided on the same day in 1954, and is considered part of that historic effort.

Facing the Supreme Court

The 1952 U.S. Supreme Court docket was heavy with civil rights cases from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Each case, with its own specific circumstances and based on unique evidence, was a challenge to the constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools.

The keystone argument rested on expert testimony by psychologists and social scientists along with the disparity in resources for facilities and per pupil expenditure

. One theory presented was the possible harm segregation posed for Black children who lived in communities and attended schools where they experienced unequal treatment based solely on race.

June Shagaloff, social science researcher, played a critical role in preparing the arguments, alongside psychologists Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark.

The Clarks had developed a unique method used to measure the impact of racial segregation on children, colloquially known as the “doll test.” Children age three to seven were asked a series of questions about their perceptions of a Black doll and an identical White doll. Their responses made it clear that they overwhelmingly understood the nature of racial segregation.

It is believed that this insight, along with Kenneth Clark’s expert analysis of the most modern psychology research of the time, was central to the success of the case. But the decision did not come quickly.

The court heard initial arguments in December 1952, then scheduled a second session for the case in December 1953, before which Chief Justice Fred Vinson died suddenly. Newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower was tasked to choose a new leader for the high court, and appointed former California Governor Earl Warren. It wasn’t until the following spring, after unyielding behind-the-scenes lobbying by the new chief justice, that a unanimous decision was handed down in favor of the plaintiffs on May 17, 1954.

Reaction and Resistance

A year later, the court issued an order enforcing the ruling and requiring that U.S. schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Many public schools did no such thing, and the NAACP and others continued to pursue lawsuits in hundreds of school districts across the country, often met with fierce opposition.

Southern White leaders vehemently opposed and vowed to defy the ruling. Senators James Eastland, Harry Byrd, and Strom Thurmond condemned the decision. The men authored a document called the “Southern Manifesto,” which outlined their refusal to abide by the court’s ruling.

Resulting Massive Resistance laws served to penalize integrated schools and, in some areas, simply closed them altogether. White communities across the South established segregated private academies and targeted Black families with unceasing intimidation.

The violent response to desegregating Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas led to the landmark case Cooper v. Aaron, which upheld desegregation mandates. Schools in Farmville, Virginia closed for five years rather than comply, which led to Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County and, ultimately, to later victories like Green v. County School Board of New Kent County and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which compelled the dismantling of segregation.

The fight for equality continues. While the Brown decision was a meaningful and inspiring victory for civil rights — and served as a powerful motivating force for the modern civil rights movement — it shed light on the unreliable political will to enshrine and enforce equality for all citizens regardless of race, religion, gender, age, disability, etc., or other disenfranchising circumstances.