Today in 1954, one of the landmark civil rights cases in American history was decided. Brown V. Board of Education was settled, with the Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation policies in public schools were unconstitutional.
America’s segregationists stood on the legal precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson to justify their discrimination. That case, decided in 1896, ruled in favor of racially segregated “separate but equal” railroad cars being in agreement with with the 14th Amendment. Plessy v. Ferguson was used as the legal grounds to segregate public schools and other public facilities.
A young girl named Linda Brown would change decades of bad legal precedent when her discrimination case reached the US Supreme Court in 1954. Brown, represented by the NAACP, sued the Board of Education of Topeka for not allowing Brown to attend an all-white school that was superior to the all-black school she was required to attend despite inferior quality of education and an unreasonably long commute.
Thurgood Marshall, a black lawyer who would eventually become a Supreme Court justice, led Brown’s legal team. He successfully prosecuted the case, and on May 17, 1954, the Court ruled that the “separate but equal” rationale was unconstitutional not only in Linda Brown’s case, but was universally unconstitutional. The “separate but equal” doctrine was invalidated.
While the letter of the law was changed dramatically, implementation of integration was slower. Entrenched segregationists were not quick to participate voluntarily in rolling back racist policies. And legal enforcement was rendered difficult by the largely toothless wording of the Court’s fourteen-page decision. A year later, in the Court’s second decision in Brown II, the ruling offered a vague injunction for all states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
Brown v. Board of Education was a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement, and while it was violently controversial at the time, is now regarded as a bright spot in the history of American jurisprudence.
It took many years for segregation to be fully excised from American public life. Thankfully, the project proved a successful. While racial inequality is still a severe, pressing concern in the United States, it is at least not formally endorsed by the law.
Brown v. Board of Education remains one of the most studied and celebrated cases in American history. Had the ruling come down in favor of the Board of Education, we would be living in a radically different country than the one we live in now.