Why is Brown v. Board of Education Important?

Brown is a Supreme Court case that overturned the legal segregation of schools and other public facilities in America. It inspired many African Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement, which ultimately led to legislation ending legal segregation in the 1960s.

Some scholars, including Klarman, argue that the Civil Rights Movement would have emerged regardless of Brown and did not directly lead to segregation being ended by law in the 1960s.

Why Is It Important?

Many scholars hold that Brown v. Board of Education was an essential inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately leading to the passage of Civil Rights legislation and the end of legal segregation. They argue that despite not directly leading to the desegregation of schools, Brown was a catalyst for the movement and that, as such, it is crucial for understanding and appreciating the progress of American society.

The 1954 decision was based on the argument that segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and impeded the ability of students to obtain an adequate education.

Although the ruling was limited to public schools, it was a major blow to the system of racial caste in America and permanently discredited the rationale of segregation. It was one of the most significant rulings in the Court’s history and, as a result, helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The backlash to Brown was fierce and intense, as racist politicians swore to uphold segregation, and Southerners formed groups like the White Citizens Council to resist school desegregation. But a nascent civil rights movement doggedly challenged segregation and eventually ended it through boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives.

The Impetus

The impetus behind the Brown case began with a simple family story. Oliver and Leola Brown were concerned for their daughter Linda’s education. Their local all-black school didn’t ill-serve her, but the distance from their home to the school made it difficult for her to attend regularly. That story inspired the Browns to file a lawsuit, ultimately leading to one of the most famous Supreme Court decisions in history.

The Court’s decision in Brown was not just a victory for the Civil Rights Movement but a watershed moment for American law and society. Before Brown, the Supreme Court had upheld segregation in 1896 with its Plessy v. Ferguson decision. But in a unanimous decision on May 17, 1954, the Justices of the Supreme Court declared state laws that allowed separate schools for white and black students to be unconstitutional.

The Goal

The Brown decision struck down racial segregation as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause, making it illegal for schools to enforce separate educational facilities. The decision became a significant milestone in the civil rights movement and opened the door to more progress toward education equity.

Oliver and Leola Brown did not come to Court claiming institutional racism or a need for racially integrated schools. Still, they wanted some semblance of control over their daughter’s learning environment.

Brown’s victory did not transform America overnight, and much work remains. But striking down segregation in public schools provided the legal precedent that made advances possible in desegregating housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher learning. The story of the lengthy legal battles to achieve school integration and the bitter fight between President Truman and Attorney General Robert Jackson over whether to submit the case to the Supreme Court is told by the authors clearly and compellingly.

The Impact

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown on May 17, 1954, declared that laws requiring segregation of schools for black and white students violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.

In its 14 pages, the Court ruled that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal and that laws mandating segregation are unconstitutional. However, it did not require immediate school desegregation and left it up to states to determine how best to comply. This opened the door for local judicial and political evasion of the Court’s ruling, including the infamous 1957 standoff in Little Rock where Gov. Orval Faubus called out the state National Guard to prevent the entrance of nine Black students into Central High School.

Nevertheless, the reaction to Brown was enormous. Many African Americans, including King and his family, wept when the decision was announced. The Court’s overturning of Plessy and the declaration that the Supreme Court was on the side of desegregation inspired many individuals to join the Civil Rights Movement, which eventually led to the passage of legislation ending legal segregation.

The backlash from die-hard segregationists was fierce, with racist politicians avoiding implementing Brown and forming groups like the White Citizens’ Councils to uphold Southern segregation. However, the widespread violence used against protestors, such as Commissioner Bull Connor’s use of fire hoses and attack dogs against young students in Birmingham, enraged Northern liberals and helped to speed up the passage of Civil Rights legislation by the end of the 1960s.

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