The Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka consists of just a single building—an old brick schoolhouse that looks not much different than the one I went to when I was a kid. But this little school building is a giant in American history. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education, which began here, was one of the most significant American political events of the 20th century. It reversed a century of legally-based racial discrimination, it launched the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and it helped produce the rightwing backlash that began in the 80s and still continues today.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Confederacy lay beaten and prostrate on the ground. Its armies had been crushed, its government collapsed, and its area occupied by Federal troops. Yet even in the ashes of this defeat, the embers of the old Confederacy still survived. The Federal Government in Washington, weary after long years of war, was anxious to end its occupation, and, unlike the American occupation of Nazi Germany almost 100 years later, never undertook the massive effort it would have required to root out the ruling race-based ideology by its roots. As Reconstruction went on, therefore, the same group of interests that had always dominated Southern society—based on class aristocracy, agrarian economic structures, and, most of all, race—regained control. By 1880, an entirely new social structure had been built in the South which, while grudgingly acknowledging the end of slavery, continued to push African-Americans into second-class citizenship. This legally-sanctioned system of apartheid was known as “Jim Crow”. Its goal was “segregation”—to keep African-Americans marginalized and separate from white society, powerless, poor, and easily exploited. A series of laws and “social customs” prevented Black Americans from voting, from attending white schools, from living in white parts of town, and even drinking from the same water fountains.
And it wasn’t only in the South. After the Civil War, large numbers of newly-freed African-American slaves migrated to cities in the North seeking employment and an escape from Southern cultural attitudes. They found themselves unwanted and unwelcome. Even without Jim Crow laws in the North, Black Americans were still effectively segregated there, living in their own ghettoized neighborhoods and attending their own inferior schools.
All of this, of course, flew in the face of America’s loud patriotic proclamations about “democracy” and “equality”, and the system of segregation soon faced legal challenges. These were all ended in 1896, when the US Supreme Court, in the Plessy v Ferguson case, ruled that legally-mandated racial segregation was not unconstitutional as long as the facilities provided to each race were “substantially equal”.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the African-American community began to become strong enough to mount an effective challenge to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine of segregation. The Great Depression had shaken the very roots of American society, and the New Deal had introduced socially-progressive ideas and programs from the very top of government. Race-based ideological dictatorships in Europe made Americans take a hard look at the effects of their own notions of Aryan superiority, and at the same time the growing population of African-Americans in many cities led to an increase in political and social influence. During the Second World War, many Black Americans served with the armed forces, and, although the US military was segregated, the countries of Britain and France where they served were not. Exposed for the first time to racial equality and social justice, African-American troops returned home determined to win the same things here. In addition, as the Cold War was raging in the 1950s, America’s system of racial segregation had become a political embarrassment: both the Soviet Union and the various anti-colonial movements around the world pointed to Jim Crow as a glaring example of American hypocrisy. The time was right for change.
Two institutions in particular played a central role. Howard University had been founded by Congress in 1867 as an institute of higher education for newly-freed slaves: it had a medical school, an advanced science study program, and a law school. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), meanwhile, had been formed in 1909 as an organization to fight for racial equality and social justice.
In 1930, the NAACP asked the faculty at Howard University’s law school to map out a legal strategy for challenging and overturning the Plessy v Ferguson decision. The resulting paper, known as the Margold Report, recommended a step by step multi-year strategy that would focus on winning integration in the educational system, which was viewed as the most important first step in winning social equality. First would be legal actions to win equality in higher-level universities and professional associations. These institutions were seen as more friendly to integration, and would provide important legal precedents. After that, legal challenges could be mounted against segregation in primary and secondary schools. Throughout the 1940s, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, working with lawyers from Howard University, won a number of suits to integrate higher education institutes across the country.
By 1950 the stage was set for the most important fight—desegregating the public schools. NAACP chapters throughout the US filed actions against their local school districts. Predictably, most of the Southern jurisdictions ruled in favor of segregation, but other Federal courts ruled in favor of the NAACP, and these conflicting opinions gave the plaintiffs what they really wanted—a final decision by the Supreme Court.
In 1952 there were five different legal challenges to segregation in the public schools that had reached the Supreme Court, from Virginia, South Carolina, the District of Columbia, Kansas, and Delaware. The Supreme Court agreed to hear all the cases at once as a consolidated matter and to issue a ruling to cover them all. The case was presented to the Court by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, an African-American who would himself go on to eventually become a Supreme Court Justice.
At this time, it was not certain which way the Court would go. Chief Justice Fred Vinson was known as a social and legal conservative, and he was rumored to be leaning towards the position that the subject had already been settled in the Plessy case. At least one of the other Justices was known to be a supporter of racial segregation. And others, while agreeing that racial equality was the correct decision, were concerned that such a ruling might cause extensive political opposition in the South and ultimately be unenforceable, undermining the Court’s authority.
Then in September 1953, as the legal process was ongoing, Chief Justice Vinson died, and President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to replace him. It proved to be a turning point. The new Chief Justice took the view that, despite the earlier Plessy case, racial segregation was legally unsupportable under the Constitution, as well as culturally and politically harmful. After the Jim Crow states had presented their arguments defending legal discrimination—they argued that the Constitution did not require racial integration, that segregation was a regional prerogative under “state’s rights”, and that “separate but equal” facilities did not cause any harm to African-Americans—Warren rejected them all, and began writing an opinion that overturned Plessy and outlawed segregation in education. Then, facing concerns about the potential political effect of the ruling in the South, he began to lobby each of the other Justices to impress upon them the need that the decision be unanimous, so there would be no legal support for any opposition. To further emphasize this point, Warren himself wrote his opinion under the docket name “Oliver Brown v Board of Education of Topeka”, using the Kansas case to illustrate the idea that this was neither a Southern nor a Northern matter, but American.
Warren was successful, and in May 1954 the Court issued its ruling with no dissenting opinions. The Plessy case had been invalid, “separate but equal” was inherently unequal, and racial segregation in education was legally unsupportable and unconstitutional. The ruling was a landmark for democracy and social justice, and it quickly opened the gates for successful efforts to desegregate transportation and other public facilities across the South as well as measures to protect the voting rights of Black Americans and to prevent race-based gerrymandering.
The effect was, as the Court expected, explosive. Extremists screeched that integration was “Communistic” and yelled for Earl Warren’s impeachment. Elected political officials across the South flatly refused to follow the Court’s ruling (one of the most famous of these was Alabama Governor George Wallace, who proclaimed “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”). On several occasions in the 50s and 60s, Federal troops were ordered in to protect schoolchildren from racist mobs and to enforce the Court’s decision. Almost overnight, a plethora of “private schools” appeared across the South: since the Court’s ruling applied only to public schools, these “white academies” were free to continue to practice racial discrimination. Political opposition to racial integration was a key factor in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1968 election, in which unrepentant racist southern politicians, nearly all of whom were “Dixiecrats” within the Democratic Party, left in droves to join the Republicans instead, where they found a welcoming home.
Since then, race has continued to play an often-unspoken role in American politics. Though we have made substantial changes since the 1950s, the undercurrent of bigotry is still there, and it’s not hard to still find unabashed racist goobers, especially on the Internet where they can speak their mind in anonymity. But even today, over 60 years after the Court’s ruling, the bigots and racists have not dared to openly attempt to repeal the legal tenets of racial equality set out by the Brown v Board of Education decision.
Some photos from a visit:
The Monroe School, now the Brown v Board of Ed Museum
The school building has been preserved just as it was in 1954
The reality of segregation
“Where hard conversations happen”
Inside the museum
One of the dolls used in a series of studies in the 1950s to illustrate the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children. The studies were a key bit of evidence which convinced the Court that “separate” was inherently “unequal”.
The kindergarten classroom
Messages left on the blackboard by visitors