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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education ended school segregation in 1954, overturning the previous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. The Supreme Court declared that separate schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, violating the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. This case sparked the Modern Civil Rights Movement.

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Video transcript

- [Kim] Hi, this is Kim from Khan Academy, and today we're learning more about Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Decided in 1954, Brown v. Board was a landmark case that opened the door for desegregation and the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools for white and black children, which had been prevalent throughout the American South since the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation, were in fact inherently unequal. The named plaintiff in this case, Oliver Brown, was the father of Linda, a third-grader who had to take a bus to a segregated elementary school that was much farther from her home than the nearby school for white children. To learn more about the Brown case, I sought out the help of two experts. Theodore Shaw is the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law, and Director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Michael McConnell is the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor, and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. So Prof. Shaw, could you just kinda set the stage for us? What was the overall social and political context behind this case? - [Prof. Shaw] Well Brown was decided in the Cold War era. I think that's important for reasons that I'll come back to. But it also was decided, I guess it was 58 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal railway cars were constitutional. Of course that extended to all walks of life in the South. And so what you had was Jim Crow segregation sustained and set in place by law. And Brown was the case that cracked the edifice of Jim Crow segregation. So, it was an enormously important case. It came after a long campaign by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn Plessy. - [Kim] One thing that I think is really confusing about Plessy v. Ferguson is how it interacts with the 14th Amendment. So immediately after the Civil War, Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 14th Amendment which gives equal protection under the law to all citizens. But then Plessy v. Ferguson just a couple decades later, legalizes segregation. Can you talk a little bit more about how the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment has been interpreted in Plessy, and then later in Brown v. Board? - [Prof. McConnell] The doctrine of separate but equal was itself a departure from the prior understanding of what the 14th Amendment meant. In the immediate wake of the 14th Amendment, segregation was understood to be a violation of equal rights. The Congress of the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which prohibited mandatory segregation of among other things, railroads. Now that was struck down in 1883, I believe it was 1886, but for reasons not related to separate but equal or segregation. But it's only in the late 1880s and 1890s that states began passing Jim Crow legislation, like the law in Plessy v. Ferguson. I think Plessy very likely would've come out a different way, had it come up 25 years earlier. It's really very difficult to understand the logic of Plessy, because Plessy takes the point of view that segregation is okay because it treats everyone the same way, and the sense of inferiority or insult that comes from segregation, the court just ignored. You can read the opinion different ways, and people do and have read the opinion different ways. A portion of the opinion makes it sound as though this is kind of social science conclusion, that segregation breeds a feeling of inferiority, that has a deleterious effect on the black students' performance in school. - [Prof. Shaw] There's a famous footnote in Brown v. Board of Education, Footnote 11 in which some social scientists, and particularly Dr. Kenneth Clark, did a series of tests, the doll tests, in which they showed black and white dolls who were otherwise identical to little children, little black children, and they asked who was the good doll, who was the bad doll, who was the pretty doll, who was the ugly doll. And the black children would invariably choose the white dolls as the better dolls, and the black dolls as the inferior dolls. And then finally the bombshell question, which one looks like you? And they would stop and choose the black doll, and many times, tears would come to their eyes. And so this old notion of the inferiority that segregation imbued in black school children was important, and the Supreme Court had some very eloquent language about that. - [Prof. McConnell] Everyone knew that the only reason to have laws requiring black and white to be separate, was because of the feeling on the part of the dominant white group, that the African race was inferior. I think it was a failure of political will really, rather than a matter of constitutional or legal logic that led to that. And then it took almost 60 years before the Supreme Court would turn itself around. - [Prof. Shaw] The late A. Leon Higginbotham who sat on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, he used to say that Plessy was wrong the day it was decided. And I believe he was right about that. If you go back and look at the rationale stated in Plessy, it didn't hold up. It's not an intellectually honest decision, and having said that, if you look at Brown, it really did not overrule Plessy on its face with respect to segregation and Jim Crow across the board. What it did was say that in the field of public education, separate but equal is unconstitutional. Separate schools cannot be equal. And what followed Brown was a series of cases in all kinds of areas in which the court sometimes without much of an opinion, cited Brown, but struck down segregation in public libraries and public accommodations, and transportation, et cetera. The case that settled the long-running boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that catapulted Martin Luther King into the national and world stage, it was decided, it was resolved finally. The boycott was important, but it was resolved by this case that the Supreme Court decided and had cited Brown. - [Kim] And so, Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund had kind of been chipping away at the edges of segregation, and then they turned directly to school segregation in the Brown cases. So what kind of arguments did they use to challenge the system of school segregation? - [Prof. McConnell] Thurgood Marshall and his co-council in the NAACP established a very careful strategy of one case at a time, sort of pushing the envelope of this idea that segregation is inconsistent with demands of equal protection. And the interesting thing about Brown itself, the case challenging segregation in Topeka, Kansas, you know, why Topeka, Kansas? Why was this such an excellent place to raise the challenge? And the reason is that the schools in Topeka were very substantially equal in quality. In Topeka they actually had integrated high schools and middle schools. It was only the elementary schools that were segregated, and the District Court found, and the Supreme Court did not disagree that in terms of their material advantages, the black school was essentially just as good as the white school. And that's why the NAACP wanted to go after Topeka, because then it went to the principle of the thing. You know 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 in principle and not just wrong because it tends most of the time to lead to material disadvantage. - [Prof. Shaw] Brown was actually five cases. The Brown case itself came from Topeka, Kansas. In many ways, the Supreme Court might've chosen to lead with the Brown case because it wasn't part of the South, and so in some ways it might've been viewed as taking pressure off of the South. But there were five cases altogether. There was a case out of South Carolina, a case out of Virginia, a case out of Delaware, a case out of Washington DC, and then the Topeka case. And the Brown family was actually not even the only family named Brown in the Topeka case. And the other Brown case did not have their father available as the lead voice, and they wanted a man, and so Oliver Brown was the one they chose. They stipulated that the schools were in fact equal in all respects, and of course they weren't. It was never possible to make separate but equal, equal. But they stipulated that these schools were equal, the black and the white schools, because they wanted the court to be able to, or to have to, confront the issue of whether separate but equal per se was unconstitutional. - [Kim] Interesting, so it's this place where they're hoping not to have a ruling that for example, oh the schools for black children need to be brought up to code, to be the same as white children, but they're trying to strike down the idea of segregation altogether. And indeed they rule unanimously that separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal. - [Prof. McConnell] The Supreme Court in Brown says well whatever may have been the status of education as a civil right back then, back in the 19th century, by now it surely is a civil right, and therefore there can be no discrimination with regard to it. And one other thing that changed that I think the Supreme Court doesn't refer to, but many historians think was surely in the back of their minds, has to do with foreign policy of all things, that during this time the United States in the wake of World War II was playing a very major role in opposing colonialism, opposing communism, in trying to spread the gospel of liberty around the world. And when we had segregation at home, this looked like rank hypocrisy. - [Prof. Shaw] This was the Cold War period. These soldiers came home from fighting a form of racism in Europe, Nazi Germany, you know the Holocaust. And when they came back, they came back to segregated America. And there are many stories that are painful about what their experiences were. But meanwhile the United States is having this Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was exploiting this inconsistency in what America said it was, and what it was. And though the Supreme Court never said a word about that in the Brown cases, that was very much context for that decision. - [Kim] So what did it take for desegregation to really come about? Do you think we've achieved desegregation? - [Prof. Shaw] Yes and no. There was a long battle to implement Brown, and in fact for the most part, Brown was not implemented fully to the extent it ever was until the early 1970s when the Supreme Court decided a case called Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina, and sanctioned the use of busing. - [Prof. McConnell] This does not depend upon what social scientists might think about how people do in school. This is a much more fundamental principle of equality under the law, that our law must treat black and white the same, that for the government to draw racial distinctions is fundamentally unequal, and unconstitutional, and wrong, and unjust, fundamentally so and not just as a matter of social science evidence. - [Prof. Shaw] I don't wanna sound despairing, you know, but I think if anybody looks at our public schools today, and many of our communities, and our towns, and cities, and our counties, we have to acknowledge honestly that there's still a great deal of segregation, and there are many schools that are identifiably white, or identifiably black. And now Latinos, Hispanics, large degree of segregation there also. And even voluntary desegregation efforts have been found by the Supreme Court a few years ago to be largely unconstitutional and illegal, and that's tragic. But that doesn't mean that Brown wasn't significant. I was born in the year of Brown v. Board of Education. The America that I grew up in is a very different country than the one that proceeded it. In spite of our flaws and our warts, no Brown v. Board of Education, no Civil Rights Movement, I would say. And ultimately no desegregation of our society to the extent that we've accomplished it, and we have to a great degree, and no Barack Obama. So I think Brown stands, as I said, as a dividing point in America, but we can do better. - [Kim] So we've learned that under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education struck a major blow to the system of segregation. After World War II, amidst the ideological struggle of the Cold War, the Supreme Court overturned the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, and ruled that segregated education constituted a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. To learn more about Brown v. Board, visit the National Constitution Center's interactive Constitution, and Khan Academy's resources on US government and politics.