Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Although the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision in two separate opinions, the 1954 decision is the landmark decision that determined that having separate but equal accommodations for the white and black races is unconstitutional. The 1955 decision served only to clarify how quickly schools should desegregate and placed the local federal district courts in charge of any legal hearing arising from the desegregation process. Ultimately, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) established the modern ideas of privacy and security in the constitutional rights. This entry reviews the groundbreaking decision of the Supreme Court by thoroughly examining Chief Justice Earl Warren’s majority opinion and how the arguments that he presented in his decision helped serve as the foundation for other important Court decisions.

In Brown v. Board of Education the Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Chief Justice Warren’s majority opinion relied heavily on Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in Plessy. Justice Harlan outlined that the Louisiana law that required separate but equal train coaches not only was inherently unequal but also did not allow citizens privacy of travel or the security of rights, as any train conductor was a de facto government agent to enforce the law. A conductor invaded not only privacy by determining the race of passengers but also the privacy of travel choice. According to Harlan,

the arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.

For the first time in Court history, Chief Justice Warren went outside legal arguments and brought in aspects of psychology and sociology to expand on Justice Harlan’s dissent. Arguing that public education has taken on a more important function of state and local governments since Plessy, Warren contended that education is more important than ever in the lives and the futures of children. In school, children learn cultural values, develop language and math skills, and acquire the foundation of good citizenship. By separating white and black children, both races are denied cultural skills and lessons, and for black children, cultural and citizenship lessons as well. Forcing black children into segregated schools denies them, through their parents, the right to choose the best school that will impart those lessons. These decisions are a private matter for parental determination, and the government should not be involved or interfere in these decisions. In this sentiment, Chief Justice Warren wrote out the foundation of constitutional protection and equal protection of private decisions or, in current parlance, the right to privacy. Chief Justice Warren does not go into further detail on this right to privacy and does not claim where in the Constitution it is located, but he does make it clear that private decisions, whether educational choices or travel choices, are protected from government interference by the Constitution.

The Court’s opinion spent more time on the area of security, and while Chief Justice Warren gave a compelling argument of precedence in overturning Plessy, the area of security is where psychology and sociology are used the most. Chief Justice Warren’s main legal argument against Plessy is spelled out in Footnote 5, where he cited Strauder v. West Virginia (1880) :

Exemption from legal discriminations, implying inferiority in civil society, lessening the security of their enjoyment of the rights which others enjoy, and discriminations which are steps towards reducing them to the condition of a subject race.

He argued that before Plessy the Court recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment was a limitation on state-imposed discrimination, finding that Plessy was the anomaly in Supreme Court jurisprudence, not the current Brown decision.

Chief Justice Warren’s other attack on Plessy is based on the psychological and sociological outcomes of segregation. He devoted considerable space to the idea that separation of the races, regardless of how equal the facilities are, leads to insecurity of rights and legal standing in society. He went beyond Justice Henry Billings Brown’s argument that the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments guarantee only legal freedoms, not personal freedoms, by claiming that if a race is denied personal freedoms, legal freedoms will automatically be called into question as well. How society treats a citizen on a day-to-day basis determines the amount of legal security that citizen has. He also pointed out that children who are separated by law from their peers and society will not feel secure in their legal rights and in their equal standing in society. He argued that this insecurity will continue into adulthood for many of these children, jeopardizing their ability to exercise their full rights as adults, including voting, jury selection, and their rights under the First through Eighth Amendments.

Mary L. Carver

See also Civil Liberties ; Civil Rights Movement ; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ; Privacy, Right to ; U.S. Constitution

Further Readings

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Eisenberg, David A. “In the Names of Justices: The Enduring Irony of Brown v. Board.” Journal of Jurisprudence, v.22 (2014).

Patterson, James T.Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537(1896).

Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880).