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Learning about America through primary sources: Brown v. Board of Education

Written by Derek Monson

December 16, 2021

This is part 12 in the Sutherland series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision. It overturned the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson and concluded that it is unconstitutional for states to maintain racially segregated public schools. The majority opinion of the court, which was unanimous, decided – based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The court did not immediately require states and school districts to adhere to its ruling. Instead, the court asked for further arguments about how it should be implemented. These arguments resulted in a second court decision regarding implementation in 1955, known as Brown v. Board of Education II. This decision charged federal district courts and school districts to implement school desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Implementation of school desegregation was met with pushback from elected officials and others in the South, leading to uneven implementation over the coming decades.

Where did it come from in our history?

The regime of legalized racial segregation enforced by Jim Crow laws and upheld by Plessy v. Ferguson generated controversy among the broader American public as well as resistance from and suffering for Black Americans. Just over a decade after the Plessy decision, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded and for several decades sought to advocate for legislation to protect Black Americans from lynching and other harmful racist acts.

From 1930s to the 1950s, in a series of lawsuits (including Pearson v. Murray [1936], Missouri et rel Gaines v. Canada [1938], Sweatt v. Painter [1950] and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education [1950]) the NAACP succeeded in persuading state and federal courts to rule that that various forms of racial segregation in higher education were unconstitutional. These legal victories laid the foundation for the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

The case took an atypical path to a final decision. It first came to the Supreme Court in 1952 and was consolidated with four other court cases, all of which sought to persuade the court to rule that state-supported racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The plaintiff was represented by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the United States’ first Black Supreme Court justice. After hearing the oral arguments, the justices were unable to agree to a majority opinion before the end of the 1952-53 court term. The court decided to rehear the case in late 1953 and try again.

Between the two hearings, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by Earl Warren. After Brown v. Board of Education was reheard in December 1953, Chief Justice Warren was able to persuade the rest of the justices to unanimously agree to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. The result was the court ruling that came down in 1954.

Why is Brown v. Board of Education an important element of civics and history education?

Brown v. Board of Education signified the early stages of a significant shift in the history of the United States. It marked the beginning of the end of an era of legalized racial segregation that oppressed Black Americans. Evidence suggests that the harms of racial segregation are not simply a thing of the past, but continue in the present, meaning that the U.S. continues nearly 70 years later to attempt to fulfill the aspiration of Brown v. Board of Education, which itself is an attempt to fulfill the aspiration of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

This court ruling also “fueled the nascent civil rights movement” in America. That movement would go on to notch significant victories for Black civil rights in the following two decades with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Brown v. Board of Education further illustrates the inconsistent and slow progress in U.S. recognition and protection of civil rights for people of color and other minorities, such as religious minorities, throughout its history. The “massive resistance” to, political obstruction of and physical hostility toward school integration is evidence of how steps forward on Black civil rights in America (e.g., the abolition of slavery and the era of Reconstruction) have often been followed by backsliding and retrenchment (e.g., the Jim Crow era and Plessy v. Ferguson).

Only by learning from, understanding and applying the lessons of this history can the U.S. hope to better approach the “more perfect union” that is the promise of the U.S. Constitution.

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