Separate but Equal?: The Brown v. Board of Education Decision, Then and Now


On the eve of the 50th anniversary of this landmark decision, educators, legal experts, and authors prepare to celebrate the historical civil rights decision known as Brown v. Board of Education. To this day, efforts continue across the country to realize the dream of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the efforts of the families named in the original Supreme Court case. This article reminds us of that critical decision and suggests why it requires us to continue to enact its principles.

During Fall 1950, several African American parents, with the support of the Topeka, Kansas Chapter of the NAACP, filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education. The court case challenged the "separate but equal" doctrine governing public education at that time. Ideally, the court case sought equitable integration of public schools in Topeka, Kansas.

At that time, African American children in Topeka were required to travel past nearby schools to attend the four schools designated for them. The Topeka school district operated eighteen schools for white children and four for African American children. In other cases outside of Kansas, African American children attended poor facilities without basic school equipment. Third-grader Linda Brown was one of those African American children who walked through a railroad switchyard to catch a bus that would take her one mile to her all- black elementary school, even though a white elementary school was only seven blocks away.

For a period of two years prior to legal action, McKinley L. Burnett, President of the Topeka branch of the NAACP attempted to persuade Topeka school officials to integrate their schools. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to ensure equal opportunities for all children, African American community leaders, including Burnett and other local attorneys, stepped up efforts to change the educational system; the lawsuit was their final attempt (Washburn Alumni Review, Dec. 1989).

The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas heard Brown's case from June 25-26, 1951. At the trial, the NAACP argued that segregated schools sent the message to black children that they were inferior to whites; therefore, the schools were inherently unequal. The Board of Education's defense was that, because segregation in Topeka and elsewhere pervaded many other aspects of life, segregated schools simply prepared black children for the segregation they would face during adulthood. Based on a similar court case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that had been overturned in the courts, the judge felt compelled to rule in favor of the Board of Education.

On behalf of Linda Brown, the NAACP then appealed to the Supreme Court on October 1, 1951 and their case was combined with other cases that challenged school segregation in South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. Augments were heard in the Supreme Court in 1952, but failed to reach a decision; it was heard again in1953 when the Supreme Court requested that both sides discuss "the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868."

On May 17, 1954, at 12:52 p.m. the historical civil right decision was uttered. It was decided that decided "that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.therefore plaintiffs and others.are deprived of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution." This decision unleashed a concentrated burst of energy altering public education across America.