BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION The unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U. S. 483) climaxed years of pressure and litigation by the NAACP and other concerned groups and individuals over the question of the legal status of American blacks in regard to public education. Harbinger of a new era in the legal struggle for black equality in the United States, the Supreme Court declared that racial discrimination in state-supported public schools was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
This decision, of course, ran contrary to the 1896 decision of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U. S. 537) which sanctioned the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine. This doctrine maintained that equality of treatment is satisfied when blacks and whites are provided equal facilities, even though these facilities may be separate. Therefore, although the Brown decision's primary thrust was against segregated public education, it also struck out at all Jim Crow laws which were based on the "separate but equal" doctrine.
In delivering the opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that state-imposed racial segregation of public school facilities was detrimental to the psychological well-being of black children. "To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race," Warren stated, "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Prior to the Brown decision, racial segregation of public school facilities was required by law in seventeen states and in the District of Columbia. Within this area, approximately eight million white children were attending approximately 35,000 white schools, while nearly three million African-American children were enrolled in 15,000 black schools. These figures prompted the New York Times (May 18, 1954) to assert that "probably no decision in the history of the Court has directly concerned so many individuals."
The Brown decision of 1954 established the constitutional principle, but did not supply the necessary enforcement decree. One year later, therefore, the Supreme Court mandated that desegregation of public school facilities should begin "with all deliberate speed" toward "full compliance with our May 17, 1954, ruling." However, many states and individual school districts adopted a snail's interpretation of the Court's "with all deliberate speed" ruling. Fifteen years after the initial Brown decision, approximately eighty percent of southern black children continued to attend segregated schools. In response, the Supreme Court in 1969 revised its previous stand by declaring in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (396 U. S. 19) that the standard of "all deliberate speed" was no longer "constitutionally permissible" and ordered desegregation "at once." Although this order did prod many states and school districts into action, complete desegregation of the nation's schools (both southern and northern) has not yet become a reality. See also: BUSING, ROLLING V. SHARPE, JIM CROWISM, PLESSY V. FERGUSON and SWEATT V. PAINTER.