The U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down School Segregation (1954)
Speaking of America: Volume II Since 1865
In the 1930s, lawyers at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People outlined a long-term strategy for challenging segregation. Charles Houston led these efforts. After graduating from Harvard University Law School, Houston became a professor at Howard University Law School. While at Harvard, Houston served as the school’s vice dean and trained future civil rights lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, William Bryant, and Oliver Hill. From 1935 to 1940, Houston was the NAACP’s first full-time, paid special counsel. When Houston resigned due to health problems, Marshall became the legal director of NAACP.
In the 1940s, the NAACP legal team won several important Supreme Court case. In Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Court outlawed white primaries in the South. In Shelly v. Kramer (1948), the Court prohibited racially restrictive covenants. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950), and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), the Court struck down segregation in graduate institutions. Inspired by these precedents, the NAACP filed lawsuits demanding the integration of public schools in Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina, and Virginia. Consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the case reached the Supreme Court. During oral arguments on December 9, 1952, Marshall attacked the legal premises of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court decision concluding that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. Marshall also presented evidence that segregation psychologically damaged black children even if facilities were equal. In defending segregation laws, attorney John W. Davis claimed that the federal government had no right to interfere with state policies on education. When Earl Warren, an Eisenhower appointee, became chief justice of the Supreme Court shortly thereafter, he demanded that the Court reach a unanimous decision on Brown. The national importance of the issues raised in Brown, Warren argued, dictated an unequivocal ruling. Unable to agree on the legal basis for outlawing segregation, the Court reheard oral arguments in December 1953. The attorneys were asked to prove that Congress had meant to desegregate schools when it drafted the fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Although the justices did not reach a definitive decision on the historical interpretation of the fourteenth Amendment, they issued a unanimous decision in May 1954. While the ruling did not abolish segregation in all public places, it struck down school segregation laws in twenty-one states. The Court did not, however, set a deadline by which public schools were to be integrated. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Document and Reading Questions: Chief Justice Earl Warren Supreme Court Opinion on Brown v. Board of Education