Last summer, my then twelve year old son was asked to participate in the National Junior Leaders Conference in Washington, DC. So, I packed our stuff and we headed for our nation’s capital. While there, we visited the Supreme Court and my son, never having been there before, was simply awed. A short time later, we went to the Library of Congress. At the time (I don’t know whether or not it’s still there), there was a display — three or four rooms big – dedicated to the Supreme Court case Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
While the case was something that Nicholas (my son) and I had talked about on a few occasions, it was interesting to watch him as he navigated through the rooms that had photographs, court documents, newspaper articles, and other memorabilia of the case and the people involved with it. About thirty minutes into our time there, he started to cry softly, but he continued making his way through the display. He went to every single display in those several rooms; he didn’t want to leave until he had seen everything and read everything.
When we finally left (almost four hours after we arrived), he said to me, “It’s disgraceful the way our country treated black people; there was no honor in any of it. ” I have chosen Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas as one of the most divisive Supreme Court cases. The case started with a third-grader named Linda Brown. She was a black girl who lived just seen blocks away from an elementary school for white children. Despite living so close to that particular school, Linda had to walk more than a mile, and through a dangerous railroad switchyard, to get to the black elementary school in which she was enrolled.
Oliver Brown, Linda’s father tried to get Linda switched to the white school, but the principal of that school refuse to enroll her. After being told that his daughter could not attend the school that was closer to their home and that would be safer for Linda to get to and from, Mr. Brown went to the NAACP for help, and as it turned out, the NAACP had been looking for a case with strong enough merits that it could challenge the issue of segregation in pubic schools.
The NAACP found other parents to join the suit and it then filed an injunction seeking to end segregation in the public schools in Kansas (Knappman, 1994, pg 466). Now, you have to remember that way back in 1892 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled (with only one Justice dissenting) that separate facilities for black people and white people were constitutional as long as they were equal; it’s the case that set the precedent of “separate but equal” (Knappman, 1994, pg 218). That ruling had never been challenged, so it played an important part of the Brown v.
The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case. Obviously, the Brown case did not go directly to the Supreme Court. First, it was heard in the U. S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The case was heard towards the end of June in 1951. The NAACP knew that the Plessy v. Ferguson case would be the backbone of Brown’s case, so they argued with that in mind. It was their argument that the white and black schools were not equal because the very idea that they were segregated sent a message to black children that they were inferior.
One of the witnesses for Brown said this in court: “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” (Knappman, 1994, pg 467). The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas argued that since most other areas of life were also segregated, the public schools were doing a service to black children by preparing them for what life was really like.
Furthermore, they argued that segregated schools were not a bad things because some famous and successful black people like Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Frederick Douglas has all attended segregated schools and were no worse off for it (Knappman, 1994, pg 468). The U. S. District Court has a hard time deciding the case. On one hand, they agreed with Oliver Brown and the NAACP’s position. They even wrote that, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children…
A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn” (Knappman, 1994, pg 468). However, Plessy v. Ferguson reared its head because the District Court acknowledged that case allowed for segregated schools. Since that was a Supreme Court Case and no other case had been used to over-rule the decision, the U. S. District Court felt compelled to rule in favor of the Board of Education, and they did (Ziegler, 1958, pg 78). Brown and the NAACP appealed their case to the United States Supreme Court. There, it was combined with other similar cases from the states of Virginia, Delaware, and South Carolina.
The case was originally argued in December of 1952, but the Supreme Court cold not reach a decision, so it was reargued in December of 1953. A decision was read on May 17, 1954; it was a unanimous decision, and it was read by Chief Justice Earl Warren: “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. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment” (Ziegler, 1958, pg 79-79). The decision of the United States Supreme Court made it illegal to use the “separate but equal” language decided in Plessy v. Ferguson in public schools.
It did not, however, strike down “separate but equal” in any other public area; restrooms and restaurant, for example, were still allowed to be segregated. The ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas included the fact that the ruling would not have any kind of immediate impact on the plaintiffs. Instead, the Court decided that it would allow a re-argument of the case in 1955 to decide the best way to implement the desegregation of the public schools. The Court knew that the issue was one that would divide the country politically, and they were right.
The Supreme Court ended up giving the job of implementation of desegregation to the southern Federal District Courts; the courts were told to implement desegregation of public schools with “all deliberate speed” (Encarta, 2006). This phrase was very loosely interpreted by many of the Southern judges, and in some instances, desegregation didn’t happen until years later. In fact, Linda Brown, the third grader around whom the whole issue was started, did not attend a desegregated school until 1955 when she was a junior high school student.
Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas helped “launch the modern civil rights movement and led to other court decisions that struck down all forms of legalized racial discrimination” (Encarta, 2006). To this day, it remains one of the most divisive cases ever heard by the United States Supreme Court. Although I wasn’t even born at the time, I remember seeing news reports and documentaries covering the first day that Linda Brown and other black children were bussed to the newly desegregated school.
I remember seeing all the white students and parents lined up near the school calling the black children names and throwing things at them. I remember the images of the police dressed in riot gear, standing by, just waiting for things to get out of hand. And, perhaps more than anything, I will always remember the look on the face of my then twelve year old son last summer, as he walked through the Library of Congress with tears in his eyes and the realization that Linda Brown was dealing with all that nastiness when she was my son’s age… just sixty short years ago.