The End of Separate But Equal

On this day in 1954, marking the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end in the war on racial inequality, the US Supreme Court unanimously rules to desegregate public schools. Delivering the opinion of the Court, newly-minted Chief Justice Earl Warren declared “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . . .”

The case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education was actually the name given to five separate cases that were heard by the Court concerning the issue of segregation in public schools. In each of the cases, African American children had been denied admittance to certain public schools based on laws allowing public education to be segregated by race. The plaintiffs had been denied relief in the lower courts based on the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” doctrine.

While the facts of each case were different, the main issue in all was the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools. Once again, future Justice Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund handled the cases. Although he raised a variety of legal issues on appeal, the most common one was that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 

Furthermore, relying on sociological tests, such as the ones performed by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and other data, Marshall argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be legally permissible.

Unable to come to a solution by June 1953 (the end of the Court’s 1952-53 term), the Court decided to rehear the case in December 1953. During the intervening months, however, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by Gov. Earl Warren of California. After the case was reheard in 1953, Chief Justice Warren, the principled pragmatist and Eisenhower appointee, was able to do something that his predecessor could not; all of the Justices agreed to support a unanimous decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Expecting opposition to its ruling, especially in the southern states, the Court did not immediately try to give direction for the implementation of its ruling. Rather, it asked the attorneys general of all states with laws permitting segregation to submit plans for how to proceed with desegregation. After still more hearings before the Court concerning the matter of desegregation, on May 31, 1955, the Justices handed down a plan for implementation; desegregation was to proceed with “all deliberate speed.”

Since they are frantically drafting unconstitutional fertility bills at the moment, is it possible the lack of respect for standing law will lead Alabama, Mississippi and like states to re-segregate their schools and public facilities with an equally cynical eye on the Gorsuch-Beach Week Court?

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.