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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Brown v. Board of Education

"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms."
- Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

On May 17, 1954, the Court unanimously ruled that "separate but equal" public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The Brown case served as a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement, inspiring education reform everywhere and forming the legal means of challenging segregation in all areas of society.

After Brown, the nation made great strides toward opening the doors of education to all students. With court orders and active enforcement of federal civil rights laws, progress toward integrated schools continued through the late 1980s. Since then, many states have been resegregating and educational achievement and opportunity have been falling for minorities.

Brown History and Background

Brown v. Board of Education was actually a consolidation of cases from five jurisdictions:

The cases were combined because they all sought desegregation of schools as the remedy for grossly inadequate conditions in segregated black schools.

The Supreme Court's Brown decision was particularly important because it was not based on the gross inequalities in facilities and other tangible factors that characterized previous desegregation cases. In Brown, the Court dealt directly with segregation and ruled that even if tangible factors like facilities, teachers and supplies were equal, separation itself was inherently unequal and a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. With Brown, the Court effectively overturned the infamous 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson which had permitted racial segregation under the guise of "separate but equal."

The unanimous Court wrote that a quality education was crucial for all children and ruled that it was the state's responsibility to ensure educational equality:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

The Court also noted that segregation has a detrimental effect upon children of color and that the impact is more profound when it has the sanction of the law. To reach this conclusion, the Court made the unusual decision to rely on social science more than legal precedent. In its arguments and brief, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had provided the testimony of more than 30 social scientists affirming the harmful effects of segregation on blacks and whites.

Online Resources

About the Brown Decision

Curricula

Exhibits

For Children

  • Student Activity Booklet - You'll find a 'court maze' and a Brown-related word search among the fun things in this online guide.

Multimedia Online

Photo Gallery

Resources and Articles

  • Fifty Years Later, the Brown Sisters Look Back - The Leadership Conference Education Fund - 03/15/04
  • New Education Project and Website Focus on 'Brown' and Beyond - The Leadership Conference Education Fund - 05/12/04
  • In Depth: Brown v. Board (The Topeka Capital-Journal) - Site includes extensive coverage of Brown's history and legacy. The site also includes links to news stories from the 1950s.
  • NEA Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (National Education Association) - Site includes classroom materials for teachers, timeline, case overview, future of school desegregation analysis, and upcoming events.
  • Board of Education into the Classroom (American Federation of Teachers) - Site includes a history section, suggested reading for different age levels, curriculum for teachers, and a "where we are today" section.
  • Education Life (New York Times) - Originally published on January 18, 2004, the site features several stories relating to the anniversary. Titles include: "The Supreme Struggle", "Poetic Justice", "The Reluctant Icons", "Brown's Children's Children", and "When Busing Ends."
  • Brown v. Board of Education Fiftieth Anniversary Commission (Institute for Public Service Policy Research at University of South Carolina) - This two-year project marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court abolishing segregation in public schools. The project will culminate in the publication of a series of papers published by the Institute on May 17, 2004, examining the status of African Americans and race relations in South Carolina and making public policy recommendations for eliminating the vestiges of segregation which linger in various aspects of current life in the state.
  • Brown v Board of Education Resource Guide (University of Central Florida) - Resource website containing important information for finding books, articles, internet sites, and videos on Brown v. Board of Education.
  • BrownvBoard.org (Washburn University School of Law) - This site has a background summary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision as well as an electronic exhibit of Kansas and the African American Public School Experience from 1855 to 1955.

Timelines

Our Members