Brown v. Board of Education Turns 65

View of the US Supreme Court Building on a bright Christmas Day
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 17, 2019 1:00 PM

Sixty-five years ago today, the Supreme Court ended school segregation by law in the United States, overturning the previous "separate-but-equal" doctrine. That decision, Brown v. Board of Education, declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," but it did not ensure perfect racial integration for schools.

The decision dealt only with government-mandated or government-authorized segregation, and decades later, studies show segregation for black students has gotten worse. So on its birthday, here's a look at the landmark case, and some of its effects.

The Court

Brown, decided in 1954, was a direct rebuttal of the Court's 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. "To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race," the unanimous Court determined, "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone":

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.

By today's standards, the opinion itself is fairly short: a brisk read at under 2,000 words, considering what the ruling purported to do. You can read it for yourself on FindLaw's Cases and Codes.

The Effect

The student plaintiffs in the case (which was actually five lawsuits consolidated into one opinion) were under no illusion that the Supreme Court could flip a magical switch and end segregation. "I was happy, but as I spoke with the people who were involved with the case, I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle," one of those former students, John Stokes, told NPR. "I knew that the power structure would not go easily. I knew that we had a hard and heavy fight."

Stokes, now 87, was one of the leaders of a student strike at his Virginia high school, described the immediate aftermath of the decision:

There were fights, there was turmoil. There were lawsuits filed. There was resistance and things of that nature, so I had mixed feelings. They closed the schools -- I had cousins and other relatives who missed school, because the schools were closed from 1959 to 1964. So we were still being punished for something that we felt we had a right to.

The Future

And today, six and a half decades later? The nation's student population has grown more diverse than ever, but according to researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles' The Civil Rights Project and Penn State University's Center for Education and Civil Rights, the high point for desegregation for black students was in 1988. "By 2016, 40 percent of all black students were in schools with 90 percent or more students of color," their report said. "Segregation for black students has expanded in all regions of the country, except for the Midwest."

So while Brown v. Board of Education may have ended de jure school segregation based on race, it hasn't had its intended effect on de facto segregation in the nation's schools. Still, Brown served as the basis for other court decisions desegregating buses, trains, bathrooms, and other public places, and milestone for black Americans to gain equal civil rights.

Happy Birthday, Brown!

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