• Meghna Singh

Brown VS Board of Education

“In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal” - Warren on 17th May, 1954 while giving a landmark ruling in the case of Brown vs Board of Education.

What was Brown Vs Board of Education?

In 1896, a set of laws called the Jim Crow laws were passed in a Supreme Court case called Plessy vs Ferguson. The judgement stated that as long as “equal” accommodation was provided for African Americans, the two races could be legally separated. This segregation was virtually applied to all areas of life. The above case came into existence when a plaintiff called Oliver Brown, encouraged by Thurgood Marshall (the head of NAACP Legal Defence - an organisation known for fighting for equal rights for blacks) filed a lawsuit- Brown vs The Board of Education of Topeka; in 1952; against the Kansas school district because his daughter Linda Brown was forced by law to attend a school especially for black children miles away from her home, in spite of the fact that an elementary school was located right near her house. But she could not enrol there because it was a whites only school and the Jim Crow laws were still prevalent.

By the time the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 it had been combined with 4 other cases- Briggs Vs Elliot, Davis Vs Board of Education of Prince Edward County, Bolling Vs Sharpe, and Gebhart Vs Ethel. Although these cases differed in some aspects, they were essentially against segregation in public schools across the States.


The Verdict

The point of contention for fighting the case was that the policy of segregation violated the “so called equal protection of the 14th Amendment”, which holds that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of law”. Initially, the Bench of Judges was deeply divided and the Chief Justice residing over the case- Fred Vinson- was against the repealing of the laws. The case was put on hold and as luck would have it, during the interim period, Fred Vinson passed away. The case was reheard in 1953- with Earl Warren as the new Chief Justice. Warren, showing extremely shrewd political and personal skills, succeeded in bringing all the judges to a unanimous decision of abolishing constitutionally sponsored segregation in schools.

However, a second judgement in 1955, called Brown vs The Board of Education II judgement did not specify how the states were to go about the process of desegregation, only that it would have to be with “ all deliberate speed”. This was done because the system believed that an immediate demand for segregation would result in violence and unrest in all parts of the country by pro-segregation groups. While this was indeed well intentioned it created a loophole by allowing the states political and judicial evasion of desegregation, thus undermining the integrity of the law.



The explosive nature of the judgement succeeded in sparking off a host of distasteful incidents, especially in the orthodox Southern states, who still believed in the Jim Crow laws.

The Little Rock Nine By 1957, Arkansas had integrated several state universities and district schools but the question of desegregation of an urban district called Little Rock led to an escalation which culminated with a bitter stand off between the U.S. President Eisenhower and the governor of Arkansas.

Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas employed the National Guard outside Central High School to prevent nine black students from entering the school premises and attending classes. The incident garnered international and national media attention and was subjected to criticism from all quarters.

After weeks of negotiations and uncertainty during which the Governor refused to budge and the National Guard the President resorted to employment of federal troops under the protection of which the nine students, known as- The Little Rock Nine- entered the Central High School, thus bringing an end to the tense standoff.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

In 1955, African-American bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama were still required to sit in the back half of buses and give up their seats for the whites if the front half of the buses reserved for them were full.

But on 1 December, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, prompting her to be jailed and fined 14 dollars for the same.

The enraged black community and black leaders decided to challenge the ordinance by boycotting the bus system of Montgomery on 5 December, the day Parks was to be tried in a municipal court.

With the help of the mobilization of the entire African American community, the boycott extended to 9 months- with measures such as African American cab drivers offering taxi rides to Blacks at the fares of a bus ride and organization of carpools across the city

On 5 June, 1956 the district court of Montgomery ruled that any law allowing the segregation of buses violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme upheld the decision of the lower court. This finally led to the integration of the Montgomery bus services on 21 December, 1956.



By overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine, the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education had set the legal precedent that would be used to overturn laws enforcing segregation in other public facilities.

Brown Vs Board of Education is considered as one of the cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement. It is credited with fuelling the nascent stages of the movement and for the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the same.

Even though it did not completely achieve its goal of national integration in public schools, the decision was instrumental towards achieving success in the longer run as it initiated the proceedings which would ultimately lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


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~ Meghna Singh