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Brown v. Board of Education
[349 U.S. 294]
Warren Court,  Decided 9-0,  5/31/1955
Read the actual decision

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was the landmark decision which ended -- at least technically -- racial segregation in public schools.

The decision, while not particularly lengthy or technical, was more contentious than the unanimous verdict would indicate. In fact, Brown required two separate decisions. The first, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which was argued twice and decided on May 17, 1954, discovered the merits of the case. The second, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), decided on May 31, 1955, assigned relief.

The campaign, led mainly by the NAACP, for an end to the state-mandated school segregation that existed under Jim Crow in the South took on steam in the 1930's. The main constitutional obstacle was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which found the concept of "separate but equal" to be constitutionally acceptable under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The primary weapon that developed against this doctrine was the fact that, in everyday practice, the segregated facilities were anything but equal.

The Court had been nipping at the legality of Jim Crow in general for a decade, but the education issue breached the dike in 1950 when cases involving black graduate students (McLaurin v. Oklahoma, Sweatt v. Painter) were decided not only on the basis of practical inequality, but also on the broader supposition that segregated systems are inherently unequal because they preclude the association with whites that would enhance black education. This line of thought, which many thought reached a bit beyond the hard facts of constructive constitutionalism, essentially spelled the end of Plessy.

While the merits of the case were reasonably quickly determined, the Court had difficulty in deciding what the relief ought to be, and how fast it should be applied. When Chief Justice Fred Vinson suddenly died in the middle of the deliberations, new Chief Justice Earl Warren convinced the Court to decide on the merits and postpone the decision on relief.

The unanimity of the decision to overturn enforced school segregation was seen as a vindication of the long effort by civil rights activists. But, in fact, Chief Justice Warren had to urge at least two other justices -- one in dissent -- to suppress their varied opinions in order to present to the public a unified Court.

Justice Warren's short, plain language opinion avoided discussing the sticky points of the case, including the difficulties establishing the historical interpretations of the Fourteenth and the controversy over some of the evidence of inequality, and dealt straight on with the Court's opinion that segregated education, in the world of the 1950's, was inherently unequal. The Court also did not delve into the legalities of Jim Crow in general.

When it decided the relief portion of the case a year later, the Court was not nearly so clear or focused. The NAACP and other supporters of desegregation wanted change to begin immediately, to have definite deadlines, and full government enforcement.

What they got was a decision which urged "all deliberate speed" in ending segregative policies, but established no actual mandate to integrate. No doubt fearing a backlash from segregationists both mild and committed, as well as realizing the upheaval inherent in implementing such momentous and expensive changes too hastily, the Court placed the job of preparing nationwide desegregation plans back onto the NAACP and other plaintiffs, as well as the local school districts themselves, and left jurisdiction to the individual federal courts. The Court hoped the Justice Department, which had supported the plaintiffs' case, would also sign onto the effort, but President Eisenhower cautiously agreed only to "obey the law of the land". As such, progress was slow and halting, and widely resisted in the South.

When school desegregation efforts came to a head in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957-8, the court stepped in to reaffirm its own power in Cooper v. Aaron, but did not expand on its original relief decision in Brown.

During the same period, the Court issued a series of per curiam decisions -- reviews of lower court decisions without extensive deliberation -- expanding the merit basis of Brown to other public facilities, but again not addressing the issue of enforcement.

While Brown, taken in and of itself, seems to have accomplished little, it did form the moral and constitutional platform upon which practically all subsequent desegregation efforts in the United States were built. In actuality, it took the Court until 1968, in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, to establish that Brown required not just an end to segregative laws, but to segregation itself.

Though its relief efforts may look soft, the Supreme Court, and its demonstrably liberal leadership in Chief Justice Earl Warren, probably did the nation a service by allowing desegregation to seep in slowly, establishing itself as a norm as it did so.

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Other decisions pertaining to Civil Rights:

Barrows v. Jackson    [346 U.S. 249 (1905)]  Warren Court
Batson v. Kentucky    [476 U.S. 79 (1986)]  Burger Court
Bernel v. Fainter    [104 S.Ct. 2312 (1984) (1905)]  Burger Court
Civil Rights Cases    [109 U.S. 3 (1883)]  Waite Court
Craig v. Boren    [429 U.S. 190 (1976)]  Burger Court
Goesaert v. Cleary    [335 U.S. 464 (1905)]  Vinson Court
Griggs v. Duke Power    [401 U.S. 424 (1971)]  Burger Court
Grovey v. Townsend    [295 U.S. 45 (1935)]  Hughes Court
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States    [379 U.S. 241 (1964)]  Warren Court
Hoyt v. Florida    [368 U.S. 57 (1961)]  Warren Court
Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.    [392 U.S. 409 (1968)]  Warren Court
Korematsu v. United States    [323 U.S. 214 (1944)]  Stone Court
Plessy v. Ferguson    [163 U.S. 537 (1896)]  Fuller Court
Powell v. Alabama    [287 U.S. 45 (1932)]  Hughes Court
Scott v. Sandford    [60 U.S. 393 (1857)]  Taney Court
Shelly v. Kraemer    [334 U.S. 1 (1948)]  Vinson Court
Smith v. Allwright    [321 U.S. 649 (1944)]  Stone Court
United States v. Cruikshank    [92 U.S. 542 (1876)]  Waite Court
United Steel Workers of America v. Weber    [443 U.S. 193 (1979)]  Burger Court
University of California v. Bakke    [438 U.S. 265 (1978)]  Burger Court

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