Brown v. Bd. of Education: 6 Things Every American Should Know - Law and Daily Life
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Brown v. Bd. of Education: 6 Things Every American Should Know

Today marks the 60th anniversary of a court decision that changed American history: Brown v. Board of Education.

The landmark decision put an end to the doctrine of "separate but equal" in education and the legal segregation of public schools. It also paved the way for 1964's Civil Rights Act and remains a much-discussed decision, as well as the most popular U.S. Supreme Court case on FindLaw.com.

So why are we still talking about it, 60 years later? Here are six things every American should know about Brown v. Board of Education:

1. Who Was Brown?

Oliver Brown, one of the 13 plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education was a welder from Topeka, Kansas, who was also a church pastor. As the only male plaintiff in the case, Brown was chosen as the case's namesake.

2. Which Boards of Education Were Involved?

In Brown's original suit, the Board of Education was the Board of Education of Topeka. But as the suit wound its way through the court system to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was consolidated with four other cases dealing with segregation in public schools: Briggs v. Elliott (from Clarendon County, South Carolina), Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (Virginia), Boiling v. Sharpe (from Washington, D.C.), and Gebhart v. Belton (from Delaware). Just as Brown became the namesake for the 13 plaintiffs in the original suit, Brown v. Board of Education was the name given to these five cases.

3. What Was Plessy v. Ferguson?

You rarely hear Brown mentioned without also hearing mention of Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy was a Louisiana shoemaker who was forcibly removed from a train and jailed for sitting in the "white" car. Plessy argued that the Louisiana law that allowed this violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. After state courts upheld the law, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in 1896, essentially codifying the idea of "separate but equal" segregation until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

4. What Were the Legal Arguments in Brown?

The plaintiffs in Brown argued that maintaining segregated but ostensibly "equal" schools for white and black children was prohibited by the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. The defendants relied on the "separate but equal" doctrine that began with Plessy: that as long as black children were afforded substantially equal facilities as white children, segregation of schools was legal under the constitution.

5. What Did the Court Decide?

The U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Brown overturned Plessy and ruled that "separate but equal" schooling was a violation of the 14th Amendment. The Court's unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren (who had been appointed not even a year earlier) began:

"Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment -- even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors of white and Negro schools may be equal..."

6. What Have Been Brown's Long-Term Effects?

Brown began the slow process of desegregating schools, and eventually other areas of American public life that were still "separate but equal." But as President Barack Obama noted in his proclamation on Brown's 60th anniversary, "The hope and promise of Brown remains unfulfilled. In the years to come, we must continue striving toward equal opportunities for all our children."

Now that you know what Brown can do for you, perhaps it's time to ask: what can you do for Brown?

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