Equal justice Under Law: The Fight for Constitutional Rights
These noble words are engraved on the facade of the Supreme Court building and represent the promise on which the United States was founded. But for two decades after the structure was erected in 1935, they also stood as a reproach: For millions of African American citizens and other minority groups the promise was empty. In no area was the denial of rights more detrimental than in public schools, where legal segregation and blatantly unequal facilities had for over a century imposed handicaps on millions of children. Finally, in the face of longstanding judicial precedent and societal resistance, the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 declared that segregated education was a denial of "equal protection of the laws" under the 14th Amendment.
The Brown case had roots in the post-Civil War years, when a number of statesmostly southern but by no means limited to that regiontransformed social patterns of discrimination into codes relegating African Americans to separate public facilities or barring them altogether. The constitutionality of one such law, the Louisiana Separate Cars Act, was tested in 1892. Homer Plessy, an African American New Orleans citizen, was arrested after attempting to sit in a whites-only railroad car. After a District Court judge upheld the act, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1896 the court upheld the earlier decision, finding that Plessy had not been denied his equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment because, in the court's interpretation, separation did not in itself deny equality before the law. The court rejected the plaintiff's claim that separate cars stamped African Americans with a "badge of inferiority." This strong affirmation of the "separate but equal" doctrine would color civil rights court decisions until the middle of the 20th century. Justice John Marshall Harlan's lone dissenting opinion sharply attacked the decision: "There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind ..." Yet the highest court had sanctioned a caste system.
The post-Plessy years were disheartening for African Americans, as they saw the very judicial system intended to ensure fairness and equality before the law used to fend off reform. Emboldened by Plessy, states passed ever more restrictive Jim Crow laws that paid little attention to the "equal" part of "separate but equal." Congress even refused to pass anti-lynching laws. Realizing that African Americans could not look to Congress for help, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-Barnett, and others founded the NAACP in 1909 to fight for change. The organization's broad strategy was to end segregation in all its forms, but it developed more limited tactics to achieve that end. It would use the courts, and at first it would attack inequality rather than challenge Plessy and segregation. Charles Houston, NAACP chief counsel from 1934 to 1938, and his successor Thurgood Marshall took the battle to the nation's schools in the 1930s and 40s, beginning with higher education. Several Supreme Court victories chipped away at the disparities in education, but the court's opinions underscored the justices' reluctance to go further and overturn Plessy.
In 1948 the NAACP decided it was time to attack the "separate but equal" doctrine. By 1952 the organization had brought to the Supreme Court four of the five cases involving school segregation that were consolidated as Oliver L. Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka et al. Arguing before the high court for the Briggs plaintiffs, Marshall held that racial classifications were inherently unconstitutional, as were separate educational facilities to accommodate such classifications. The unanimous decision handed down on May 17, 1954, was one of the most significant in U.S. history. Its reaffirmation of the 14th Amendment, long undermined by Plessy, made it clear to all Americans that the federal government would protect the rights of citizens from state laws that threatened those rights. It opened the modern civil rights movement for African Americans and laid the foundation for similar movements by other minority groups. The ruling even served as a model for the inclusion of education as a basic right in the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa. Yet Brown was only the beginning: For over 10 years it was met with fierce resistance, and today it stands as a guidepost from a half-century ago, reminding us that the high ideals of the U.S. Constitution can never be taken for granted.
Five Cases: A National Strategy
The cases consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education were deliberately drawn from different areas of the country. Emphasis on the South would have introduced political complications to an already complex case. Topeka, Kans., was chosen as the lead case for the same reason. Also, the African American schools in Topeka were essentially equal to white schools, so segregation itself, not equality, would be the issue in question.
Homer Plessy's refusal to leave a white rail car led to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and the "separate but equal" doctrine that would play so significant a role in the Brown v. Board of Education cases. After Plessy, localities could justify Jim Crow laws by citing the case. By mid-century the "psychological terror of segregation," as Mary E. Mebane wrote (Mary: An Autobiography, 1981), had taken root from Florida to as far north as Delaware and as far west as Arizona.
The Long Struggle for Civil Rights
Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subjects to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein may reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
About 1500 Spain imports enslaved Africans to the New World to replace enslaved American Indians who escape or die from European diseases.
1619 Twenty Africans are sold into servitude, Jamestown, Va. Institutionalized slavery includes branding of the enslaved.
1793 Congress passes Fugitive Slave Act, making it a crime to harbor African Americans who have escaped enslavement.
1831 Nat Turner and 60 followers kill 55 whites in Virginiathe most serious uprising by enslaved African Americans in U.S. history. Turner and 16 followers are hanged.
1843 Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Bomefree; freed from slavery in New York, 1827) becomes an itinerant antislavery orator and singer.
1847 Frederick Douglass's publication of North Star, an antislavery newspaper, signals his break with the more radical white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
1849 Supreme Court's Roberts v. The City of Boston decision upholding segregated schools provides precedent for Plessy v. Ferguson.
1857 Supreme Court's Dred Scott v. Sandford decision upholds slavery in the territories. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney writes that an enslaved person is property and that only whites are U.S. citizens.
1863 President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation. Mobs in the New York City Draft Riots kill dozens of African Americans.
1865-69 Congress passes 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, outlawing slavery, ensuring "equal protection of the laws," and banning state restrictions on voting based on race.
1875 Civil Rights Act promises to "citizens of every race ... regardless of any previous condition of servitude" equal access to public accommodations. It is nullified by the Supreme Court in 1883.
1881 Booker T. Washington founds Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.
1896 Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine.
1903 In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois breaks with Booker T. Washington over the latter's emphasis on gradualism and vocational education. DuBois wants the college-educated "Talented Tenth" to lead "the masses of the Negro people" to political and social equality.
1909 DuBois's Niagara Movement joins with whites outraged by the Springfield Riot of 1908 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Its strategy relies on legal action, protest, and education.
1934 Charles H. Houston is named chief counsel to NAACP. He develops a legal strategy for achieving equality in education.
1942 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsors nonviolent sit-ins at northern segregated public facilities.
1948 President Harry Truman ends segregation in the U.S. military.
1954 On May 17 the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation is unconstitutional.
1955 Rosa Parks, seamstress and secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., chapter of the NAACP, refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., helps organize a successful year-long bus boycott in Montgomery.
1960 Four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College launch the southern sit-in movement at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
1961 CORE organizes Freedom Rides, in which student volunteers take bus trips to test new laws desegregating bus terminals. They meet brutal resistance in Alabama.
1963 Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lead anti-segregation marches in Birmingham, Ala. Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor uses fire hoses and dogs against student marchers hundreds of whom are jailed.
1963 In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr., defends "direct action" to clergymen counseling patience. "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
1963 Demonstratorsestimated at 250,000march on Washington, D.C., demanding passage of the Civil Rights Act.
1964 President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in employment, voting, and use of public facilities.
1965 The nation is appalled by images of police and state troopers beating and kicking participants in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. Soon after, Congress passes the Voting Rights Act, which nullifies state and local laws hindering voting by African Americans.
The Aftermath of Brown
In May 1955 the Supreme Court ordered that integration be implemented with "all deliberate speed," a controversial phrase reflecting the court's concern over Brown's reception. Rather than comply, Prince Edward County, Va., closed its schools from 1959 to 1964, an example of Virginia's "massive resistance" strategy. The Supreme Court finally ordered the county to open and integrate the schools. In other places desegregation was met with angryoften violentresistance, and openly segregated public facilities persisted into the 1960s.
Visiting Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is open all year 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1. The park may close for extreme weather, like ice and snow. Please call ahead or check local weather conditions. The park is accessible to those in wheelchairs (entrance, restrooms, and the second floor via elevator) and to those with visual impairment.
From I-70 eastbound take the 8th Avenue exit (362B); it merges with Monroe St. Follow Monroe south past the site at 1515 SE Monroe St., turn left (east) onto 17th St. and left into he visitor parking lot.
From I-335 northbound take the Topeka Boulevard exit (177), turn left (north) on Topeka Blvd., turn right (east) onto 17th St., drive 200 feet past Monroe St., turn left into the visitor parking lot.
From US-75 southbound merge onto I-70 east toward Kansas City. Take the 8th Avenue exit (362B); it merges with Monroe St. Follow Monroe St. south past the site at 1515 SE Monroe St., turn left (east) onto 17th St. and then left into the visitor parking lot.
Source: NPS Brochure (2017)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
1999 Archeological Geophysical Survey Tests at Monroe School, Brown V. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report Series No. 81 (Robert K. Nickel and William J. Hunt, Jr., 2002)
"A Strong Pull, A Long Pull, A Pull Altogether": Topeka's Contribution to the Campaign for School Desegregation (Rachel Franklin Weekley, December 1999)
Archeological Monitoring and Limited Testing During 2001-2003 at the Monroe Elementary School and Playground Field, Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Shawnee County, Kansas Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report Series No. 91 (Jay T. Sturdevant, 2004)
Brown v. Board of Education Cultural Landscape Guidelines (Quinn/Evans Architects and Land and Community Associates, April 2000)
Covert Discrimination: TopekaBefore and After Brown (Robert Beatty and Mark A. Peterson, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 27 No. 3, Autumn 2004)
Cultural Landscape Guidelines, Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas (Quinn/Evans Architects and Land and Community Associates, April 2000
Historic Structure Report: Monroe Elementary School (HS-01), Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas (Quinn Evans Architects, January 2000)
Historical Handbook, Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (text only) (Mary Maruca, 2003)
"Powers Unusual": Brown v. Board of Education and the Modernization of Law Enforcement in Florida (Anders Walker, extract from Federal History, Issue 2, ©Society for the History in the Federal Government, 2010)
Recovering Untold Stories: An Enduring Legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision (©The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, 2018)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Thurgood Marshall (HBO, 2011)
Last Updated: 11-Jun-2022