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

  • After Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537 (1896)) held that segregation was not a per se violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, public schools in the South remained segregated.
    • Plessy was based on the idea that “equal” doesn’t mean “integrated” and as long as the facilities were equal, the 14th Amendment was theoretically satisfied.
    • However, in almost all cases, facilities provided to black students were substantially inferior to those provided to white students.
  • Brown et. al. filed a class action suit in Topeka claiming that the segregation was a violation of Equal Protection Clause.
    • This was mostly a test case. The facilities for students in Topeka were roughly equal, and Brown was challenging the concept of segregation in general.
      • If the schools had been unequal, a court could rule narrowly and say that segregation was fine, but that the schools for minorities just needed to be improved.
  • The Trial Court found for the Board of Education. Brown appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Plessy was still controlling law on the issue.
    • The Court found that schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational qualifications of teachers.
  • The US Supreme Court combined a number of similar cases, and granted certiorari.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found that racial segregation was unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court found that segregation was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause, even when the segregated facilities appeared equal.
    • The Court found that even if objective factors were equalized, intangible issues foster and maintain inequality.
      • This causes a detrimental effect on minorities because it is interpreted as a sign of inferiority.
    • The Court remanded the case back to the Trial Court to determine the property remedy.
      • That proved to be quite controversial, and ended up back at the US Supreme Court a year later.
        • At issue was what to do about the fact that races tended to be geographically separated, so even if you didn’t actively segregate schools, they tended to naturally segregate. The final answer was bussing students around to school districts far from home.
  • While almost everyone would agree today that segregation is wrong, this case remains controversial because the decision relied on social science data about the psychological effects of segregation that turned out to be flawed.
    • Some ‘originalists’ argue that the 14th Amendment is about ‘equality’, not ‘integration’, and that segregation is constitutionally permissible based on a literal reading of the Constitution, assuming you could absolutely guarantee that the facilities were equal.