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Brown Vs. The Board Of Education
Education has long been regarded as a valuable asset for all of America's youth. Yet, when this benefit is denied to a specific group, measures must be taken to protect its educational right. In the 1950's, a courageous group of activists launched a legal attack on segregation in schools. At the head of this attack was NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall; his legal strategies would contribute greatly to the dissolution of educational segregation.
According to U.S. Court Cases the segregation among whites and blacks was a legal law established for almost sixty years in the United States. However, Brown vs. The Board of Education was the turning point in race relations. Still, most of the conflict between whites and blacks would be in the south, because they where the largest racial minority. They were subject to laws and customs, which prevented from full participation in social life. As a matter of fact, many of the laws imposed on black were that of segregation in public schools (U.S. Court Cases 154). Yet, to understand the laws that were being questioned in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education, one must look back to the beginning, to when laws were first set to limit the lives of African Americans.
The one case that fueled that battle was Plessy vs. Ferguson. According to Tackach, this case concerned a piece of Jim Crow legislation that had been enacted in Louisiana in 1890. The Louisiana Railway Accommodations Act required all railway companies operating to: ...provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing separate coaches or compartments so as to secure separate accommodations... insisting on going into a coach or compartment to which by his race he does not belong, shall be liable to a fine of twenty five dollars or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days (Tackach 22).
However, on June 7, 1982 a man - seven eights white and one eighth black - boarded a train in New Orleans and took a seat in the car reserved for white travelers. Although he was partly white, Louisiana law still considered this man a Negro. As a result, Homer Plessy was arrested by a detective and taken to the Criminal District Court of New Orleans. There, Judge John Ferguson issued the penalty required by law. Still, Plessy appealed and took his case to the Supreme Court of Louisiana; and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he referred to the Fourteenth Amendment (22).
Finally, on May 6, 1896, the Supreme Court delivered its verdict. With a vote of seven to one, the Court maintained Plessy's conviction. Henry Billings, Associate Justice stated that meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law... but could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color. (22) He continued by stating that the segregation of the two races did not mean to imply that either race was inferior to the other in any way. Brown then stated that all laws should be followed and upheld for the promotion for the public good, and not for the annoyance... or a particular class. However, he added that a law demanding the division of races on public railways is no more obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment than that acts of Congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia. (22) Finally Brown concluded his opinion by stating: If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane. (23)
The Supreme Court's first major confrontation with the battle against segregation in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruled that separate, but equal facilities did not violate the demands of the Constitution. This caused a chain reaction throughout the United States. Many of the states began to pass laws that demanded racial segregation in every aspect of life. These separate, but equal laws were passed for restaurants, in voting; but most importantly, public education (U.S. Court Cases 155).
The author of Brown v. Board of Education describes the first three decades of the twentieth century as segregated, but never equal, especially in the school system. Although state and local governments poured more and more money into the development of schools, those schools established for black students received only a fraction of the funds.
According to Tackach, in 1910 southern states spent $9.45 per white child each year. However, only $2.90 was spent to each black child (Tackach 28). By 1916 the expenses for white children raised almost a full dollar, meanwhile, funds for black students lowered a cent.
In The Soul of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois' study of African American education he states: The Negro colleges, founded, were inadequately equipped, illogically distributed, and varying efficiency and grade; the normal high schools were doing little more than common-school work, and the common schools were training but a third of the children who ought to be in them, and training these often too poorly. (Tackach 27)
The black schools were inferior to those of white schools in almost everyway. Most of the buildings that were used as black schools were never kept in suitable condition. Many lacked adequate heating systems and indoor plumbing. Classrooms of black students were frequently overcrowded. Teachers of black schools were paid a salary considerably less than their colleagues in white schools. When it came to the daily curriculum, students in white schools were offered many more subjects, and were involved in many more extracurricular activities.
Dr Hugh W. Speer, chairman of the University of Kansas City's department of elementary school testified during the Brown vs. The Board of Education cases that: For example, if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represented ninety percent of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child's curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation. (Knappman 467)
Meanwhile, students in black schools were offered very little subjects and few to none extracurricular activities. At the same time, black schools often located in distant areas without any means of transportation to and from the school. As a result to these horrid conditions, dropouts among African American students was incredibly high. Moreover, literacy rate among the African American population remained incredibly low, despite the abolishment of slavery. (Tackach 27+)
Finally, one man chose to stand up for what he believed in, and attempted to question the law. Despite the attempts of men such as William Reynolds, who tried to enroll his son in a school set aside for whites in Topeka, Oliver Brown's desire that his children be able to attend the closest public school resulted in a transformation of race relations in the United States. However, in the case of William Reynolds, the state Supreme Court referred to the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (Haskins 105).
Oliver Brown lived with his family on First Street near the Topeka Avenue viaduct. There, trains rumbled throughout all times of the day. Brown was a hardworking welder in a railroad shop and worked as a part-time minister. Nothing, however, would prepare him in presenting his case before the three solemn judges sitting before him in the formal marble courtroom (Kraft 111). Brown's family lived on the wrong side of town (Knappman 466). Their home was close to the railroad shop where he worked, and bordered a major switchyard. Not only was it difficult to live in such noisy conditions, but also the Brown children had to walk through the switchyard to get to the black school a mile away. Meanwhile, there was another school only seven blocks away, but it was segregated for white children only (466).
When his daughter Linda was to enter the third grade in September, Brown took her to the whites-only school and tried to enroll her. Without any history of racial activism, Brown headed down the corridor to the principal's office. He was told that such an enrollment was impossible due to the segregation laws of Topeka, Kansas. Thereafter, Brown sought help from the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Kraft 110).
The organization, under the direction of McKinley Burnett, had been waiting for an excellent chance to challenge the segregation issue. Finally, they had the perfect plaintiff to defend the case. Now that he had Brown and several other black parents in Topeka with children in blacks only schools, Burnett and the NAACP decided that it was time to take legal action (Knappman 467). On March 22, 1951The NAACP lawyers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, requesting the abolition of segregation in the school system. Brown and the other black parents testified to the fact that their children were denied admission to white schools.
According to Knappman one parent testified: “It wasn't to cast any insinuations that our teachers are not capable of teaching our children because they are supreme, extremely intelligent and are capable of teaching my kids or white kids or black kids. But my point was that not only I and my children are craving light, the entire colored race is craving light, and the only way to reach the light is to start our children together in their infancy and they come up together.” (467)
With the experience of dealing with many court battles over racial discrimination, Marshall was known to be a verdant with segregation issues. As a matter of fact, according to U.S. Court Cases, he was anxious to demonstrate not only that segregation did not follow the demands of the Constitution of the United States but also that it may psychologically damage African-Americans, especially the children. In order to prove his point Marshall invited several prominent social scientists to study the situation in Topeka, Kansas, and to comment on the psychological impact of segregation. The groups stated, Assigning a particular group to separate facilities identified this group as having a lower status than other people. (U.S. Court Cases157). Being exposed to segregation and being considered as inferior lowered the self-esteem of the group (157).
The Board of Education's lawyer's felt differently about the psychological effects on the children. They felt that since most restaurants, bathrooms, and public facilities in Kansas City were also segregated, schools were only preparing black children for the life of black adults. The board's argument did not convince the judges. The board was assuming that segregation was a natural desirable way of life for the races to live (Knappman 468).
Next, the board used the example of many successful African Americans, who lived through the abolition of slavery, and segregated schools. They believed that segregated schools did not have any prejudicial effect on the children. However, the delusion in the argument was clear. Although some African Americans were capable of overcoming racial prejudice, the majority of African Americans are offered fewer opportunities as a result of segregation. As a matter of fact, Dr Horace B. English, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, testified: There is a tendency for us to live up to, or perhaps I should say live down to, social expectations and to learn what people say we can learn, and legal segregation definitely depresses the Negro's expectancy and is therefore prejudicial to his learning. (468)
On August 3, 1951 the court was ready for it's decision. The three judges deciding the case were aware of the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896. Plessy justified the separate, but equal school system between the races. As a result, nothing was overturned or changed. Despite expert testimony that separate-but-equal (468) schools were inherently impossible, the court felt compelled to deny Brown and the other plaintiffs (468).
On October 1, 1951 the plaintiffs filed a petition for appeal. Under certain special procedures, they went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court for a trial. The hearing before the court would take three days, and a decision would not be rendered for eighteen months. Among the cases of the twentieth century, Brown vs. The Board of Education would become the most important (Tackach 57).
In the summer or 1952, the NAACP's best legal minds gathered at the New York City offices of the organization's Legal Defense Fund. There Thurgood Marshall coordinated an intense four-month attempt to present the NAACP's argument for school desegregation. Marshall pushed his associates through sixteen-hour days of research as the NAACP's lawyers prepared the legal briefs that would put forth their argument and the courtroom strategy that would attempt to convince the nine justices of the Supreme Court to rule in favor or the NAACP and outlaw segregation in public schools. (57+)
Marshall, with the help of his excellent assistants scrutinized previous Supreme Court decisions that might contribute as legal precedents in this case. Somehow, they needed to find a way to controvert the Supreme Court's ruling in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. They had to influence the court into believing that the rulings on school desegregation handed down during the first decades of the twentieth century should never govern these recent cases. Marshall and his team would have to present the argument that the most recent school desegregation victories suggest that the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision was losing its legal and moral standing, especially when it dealt with public education (58).
Almost a week before the hearing in the Supreme Court, Marshall and his lawyers assembled at Howard University's law school to hold a mock trial. A group of law professors and lawyers acted as the Supreme Court Justices while Marshall and his assistants conducted a dress rehearsal of the case. The men playing the justices asked difficult questions at the NAACP's lawyers. As a result, Marshall and his legal team gathered together to perfect their arguments and anticipate counterarguments.
By December 9, Marshall and his assistants were prepared to present the most important case of their lives before the U.S. Supreme Court (59). Suddenly, as the NAACP attorneys were planning strategies for the argument for the Brown vs. The Board in September of 1953, Chief Justice Fred Vinson suffered a fatal heart attack. The death of this Chief Justice could not have come at a worse time, just as the Supreme Court was deciding the most important case of the century (68). Vinson's replacement was Earl Warren, the popular and well-respected governor of California. Warren had a good reputation for fairness and honesty.
Warren was so well respected that both Democrats and Republicans admired him. To Thurgood Marshall, however, the new chief justice caused turmoil. They questions whether the new chief justice would take a radical step to outlaw school segregation and overturn court decisions that had stayed in effect for more than fifty years (68). In order to be ready for the December arguments, Chief Justice Warren reviewed the entire testimony involving the Brown case. He would read the transcripts of the lower-court and Supreme Court hearings, analyze the legal briefs submitted by all parties, and discuss the case at length
with his colleagues on the Court (68).
Finally, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court Justices were ready to deliver their decisions. At around one o'clock, Chief Justice Warren announced that he was ready to read the Court's opinion in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. He reviewed the facts of the case first from the plaintiffs' claims to the decisions of the lower court. He continued with commenting that segregated schools damage African American students by generating a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlike ever to be done. (74)
Warren then went on to say: We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine or 'separate, but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated are deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. (74)
Unfortunately, there was much uproar that was against the Supreme Court's decision. Some states refused to make any move toward integration. For example, Orval Faubua, governor of Arkansas called in the National Guard when several black children tried to attend a previously all white school in Little Rock. The children underwent a great deal of turmoil as white parents and others blocked the way for the black students.
Finally, President Eisenhower sent five hundred paratroopers to enforce the new court order. On the other hand, integration went by smoothly in some parts of the country. Soon, integration became the norm throughout all areas of social life (Kraft 124+).
Although it took a great deal of work, and effort Brown vs. The Board of Education proved to be the most important Supreme Court case of the twentieth century. With the help of the NAACP, and the intelligence and strategy of Thurgood Marshall, segregation was eliminated; and the idea of separate, but equal was no longer accepted.
Historian David Halberstam stated in his history of the 1950's: The Brown vs. The Board of Education decision not only legally ended segregation, it deprived segregationist practices of their moral legitimacy as well. It was therefore perhaps the single most important moment of the decade” (Tackach 9).
Editors Of Salem Press. U.S. Court Cases. Hackensack, New Jersey: Salem Press Inc., 1999
Haskins, James. Separate, But Not Equal. New York: Scholastic Press, 1998 Knappman, Edward W. Great American Trial. New England Publishing Associates, Inc., 1994
Kraft, Betsy Harvey. Sensational Trails of the 20th Century. New York: Scholastic Press, 1998
Tackach, James. Brown v. Board of Education. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1998
Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association Of America, 1995
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976
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