The United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 ( 1954 ), signaled America's definitive emergence, at least on a legal plane, from an entrenched system of racial segregation. So-called Jim Crow laws and customs, occurring mainly but not exclusively in the South, prohibited racial integration in almost all realms, from marriage, public schools, and professional sports to cemeteries and swimming pools. Brown focused on public schools, ruling on claims of violation of the constitutional rights of schoolchildren in four states and the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall, heading a legal team from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although the case had its limits in regard to the extent, and timing, of the concrete changes it engendered, its significant, lasting power is in the articulation of an interpretation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution that simply and emphatically bans state-mandated separation by race.
The unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and announced on May 17, 1954, declared racially segregated schools inherently unequal, thus overruling the long-standing precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 ( 1896 ), which had declared separate but equal facilities constitutionally acceptable. In Brown the Court relied on objective evidence of a lower quality of schools for black children as well as on social science research showing the detrimental psychological and sociological impacts of the separation itself, which appeared to foster assumptions of the general superiority of whites. The decision held implications for all forms of state-mandated racial segregation, but its immediate effect was on the twenty-one states that either mandated or allowed separate schools. It left the question of implementation for a second hearing later that year, inviting the US attorney general and various state attorneys general to submit their recommendations in the meantime.
Thus there were two Brown decisions, commonly referred to as Brown I and Brown II. The latter, announced on May 31, 1955, is typically portrayed as the antidote to the sweeping proclamation of the first decision, a capitulation in part to the firestorm of opposition and recalcitrance it triggered. Yet, as James Patterson observes in his 2001 book on the case and its legacy, Brown II likely further infuriated southern whites already angered by the first decision. This follow-up opinion stated that compliance was to be done “with all deliberate speed,” emphasizing that, though states and schools districts would be expected to move immediately toward desegregation, progress might be plausibly delayed by various local conditions, such as the need to construct new schools, or to develop new policies and procedures.
Two dynamics are crucial to the accurate characterization of Brown's role in the nation's journey toward civil rights reforms. The first attempts to place this landmark case in the context of judicial decisions made before and after, focusing on whether it represented a revolution in legal doctrine. If so, evidence should show that this case represented a sharp deviation from precedent and that it had a definitive influence on subsequent outcomes. History provides only limited support for this scenario. Certainly, Brown followed a line of other cases using the equal protection clause, and other provisions in the US Constitution, to strike down discrimination in other target areas. For example, in the fifteen years preceding Brown, the Court had already found segregated public law and graduate schools to be unacceptable, in cases such as Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 ( 1938 ), and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 ( 1950 ). On the other hand, in Brown the Court spoke for the first time on the education of children, a matter of much greater relevance and import to most Americans.
A second dynamic considers the broader significance of the case, asking whether and to what degree it altered the realities of Jim Crow America. The social impact of the decision on public school segregation, as well as on the progress and acceptance of integration more generally, is still the subject of debate. Scholars have compared the impact of judicial pronouncements such as Brown to that of federal legislation. Gerald Rosenberg, in his influential 2008 book, suggests that Brown had a very limited effect on school demographics and public opinion, or even as a spur to the civil rights movement itself. As he sees it, the ruling's most important legacy may have been a negative one—hardening resistance to reform among some whites.
The strongest part of the argument that Brown had a negative effect relies on data on school desegregation. It is undeniable that very little significant change occurred until the mid-1960s, largely as a result of the clearer and more enforceable mandates of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As Rosenberg notes, “ten years after Brown only 1.2 percent of black schoolchildren in the South attended school with whites” ( 2008, 52 ). Furthermore, the 1964 act notwithstanding, a more intractable form of school segregation gradually emerged as a result of de facto residential segregation. After Brown, a system composed of largely white suburban and largely minority urban school districts developed.
Still, there exists a powerful counterargument on the impact of this case, as presented by Michael W. McCann in a 1998 essay. In this view, Brown promoted a new discourse on the meaning of rights in a way that subtly but affirmatively fostered progress. It was the very principles articulated in Brown that, as a New York Times editorial on the thirtieth anniversary of the case put it, “were finally written into laws that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations, employment and housing” ( Martin 1998, 228 ). In retrospect, though the decision may have been more symbolic than definitive in its immediate impact, it played a crucial and irreplaceable role in the chain of events that led to the end of Jim Crow and segregated America.
There remains an unsettled aspect to the first Brown decision, in regard to what specific legal principle justified the Court's reasoning. An anticlassification approach emphasizes that segregated schools were struck down simply because they classified individuals in an inequitable and harmful manner, on the basis of race, thus clearly violating the equal protection clause. But a broader interpretation is that the decision was based on the principle of antisubordination, the concept that governments may not treat historically disadvantaged groups in a manner that perpetuates their second-class status. Whether anticlassification or antisubordination was, or should have been, the premise of Brown can have modern implications. For example, affirmative action policies, in which racial minorities are given certain advantages in employment or education opportunities, would fail under anticlassification but could be warranted under antisubordination. Because the Court's opinion arguably includes passages that support both approaches, the question remains open.
SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement ; Fourteenth Amendment ; Fourteenth Amendment: Equal Protection Clause ; Race Discrimination ; School Desegregation .
Balkin, James M., and Cristina M. Rodriguez. “An Interactive Civil Rights Chronology.” Yale Law School. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/brown/index.html .
Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Oxford, UK, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Martin, Waldo E., Jr. Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
McCann, Michael W. “Law and Political Struggles for Social Change: Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Promises in Future Research.” In Leveraging the Law: Using the Courts to Achieve Social Change, edited by David A. Schultz. New York: P. Lang, 1998.
Patterson, James T. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone And Its Troubled Legacy. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Romero, David W., and Francine Sanders Romero. “Precedent, Parity, and Racial Discrimination: A Federal/State Comparison of the Impact of Brown v. Board of Education.” Law and Society Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 809–26.
Rosenberg, Gerald N. The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring about Social Change? 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Francine Sanders Romero
College of Public Policy
University of Texas at San Antonio