Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark case in the history of American education. There were several events and issues, however, which led up to this critical event. From the 1892 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the precedent of "separate but equal" was set, resulting in separate schools for white and black children. Such schools were constitutional as long as they were "equal". That is, "colored schools" were supposed to provide the same education that white students received at their schools, though this was not the case.

In the 1900s, with industrialism in the forefront, cities began a process of ghettoization, resulting in ethnic enclaves. These neighborhoods later affected where students would attend school, which in turn, affected the quality of the schools. In the 1908 case of Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, the state attacked the racially mixed school of Berea College and mandated separate facilities, separated by at least 25 miles. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling and Berea College became segregated.

Then in 1931, the issue of segregation was greatly challenged by the Lemon Grove Incident in San Diego, California. In this case, which was used as a precedent for the Brown v. Board of Education case, the parents of Mexican children demanded that their children be given the same education as the local ranch owners' children. The judge ruled in favor of the Mexican children and decided that school desegregation was illegal.

Another precursor to the Brown v. Board of Education was the case of Gaines v. Missouri in 1938. In this case, Gaines, a black student, wanted to go to law school in Missouri. Due to a lack of separate facilities, Missouri had the option of paying for Gaines to attend law school in another state which had separate facilities. Gaines, however, wanted to go to school in Missouri. The Supreme Court ruled that either Missouri allow Gaines to attend school at that institution or they build him separate facilities, which they did.

Other events of significance during this time period reveal many conflicting priorities in American government. In 1944, Congress authorized the GI Bill of Rights, which guaranteed veterans access to home loans, scholarship, life insurance and unemployment insurance. The Federal Housing Authority provided low interest home loans to assist the booming suburbanization of the postwar period. It advocated the use of restrictive covenants, thereby ensuring segregation in residential development. This practice was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948.

In the 1950 Bolling v. Sharpe case, the judge, which ruled in opposition of the black children, stated that "school segregation is humiliating to Negroes. It brands the Negro with the mark of inferiority and asserts that he is not fit to associate with white people." From this opinion, Bolling v. Sharpe went before the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor on the black children at about the same time the ruling for Brown v. Board of Education was handed down.

Finally, in May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued a historic decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. It "declared separate educational facilities for minorities were inherently unequal" (Glickstein, pg. ix). Furthermore, the judges stated, "A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn." The black children were deprived the equal protection of the laws stated in the Fourteenth Amendment. The integration of public schools was mandated by the Supreme Court. Therefore, the existing school system that segregated students to different schools according to their race, was no longer legal. The law of "separate but equal" was overturned by this historic court case. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that the brand of separate but equal public schooling allowed under Plessy v. Ferguson violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. School districts were thus mandated to operate one district for all students. This constitutionalization of education policy was a dramatic shift from business as usual in American schooling.

There were many issues related to segregation and higher education during this decade. In Sweatt v. Painter, the Supreme Court forced the University of Texas Law School to admit Sweatt, a black student, because the black law school was not equal in terms of reputation to the white school. Additionally, in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State, McLaurin argued that his constitutional rights were being violated. McLaurin was forced to sit in isolated seats in a classroom, library and cafeteria. In another unanimous decision, the Court ruled in favor of McLaurin. These two cases contributed to the case of Brown v. Board of Education by setting the precedent that the doctrine of "separate but equal" was not applicable to the educational system.

Brown v. Board of Education was a victory for minority education, as well as a victory for minority rights as a whole. The integration of black and white students eventually provided for better relations between the two races. A common ground was formed once the schools were desegregated, which enabled the future generations to begin on more equal terms. Racism, although not completely eradicated, has declined tremendously since the 1950's, and Brown v. Board of Education has been a main contributor to the change. This decision is especially significant because it recognized that racial segregation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. It was also a turning point in the fight for civil rights for all minority groups, beyond African Americans.

The era that followed the 1950s consisted of many educational controversies which had their roots in the past. Brown v. Board of Education was the foundation for the integration of the educational system which was confronted with many adversities. The integration of the schools heightened racial tensions. White students led strikes to prevent the black students from entering the schools. Teachers noted an increase in crime and fighting, perhaps evident of the racial tension of that time. These tensions eventually grew less volatile, however, they have never fully disappeared to this day.

The Brown decision also set the stage for more aggressive centralized decision- making at the Federal level with regards to public education. It set the stage for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Department of Education would have been established in 1979, were it not for the Brown decision in 1954.

Since the Brown decision, other forms of segregation in schooling have been deemed unacceptable. For instance, Oakes (1985) called for schools to stop academic tracking because it is so closely tied to race and class- based segregation. As urban schools become increasingly racially and economically re-segregated, many document the deplorable effects of separate but equal education (Kozol, Bowles & Gintis, 1991). Many scholars are revisiting the Brown decision and are continuing to critically examine its aftermath. (Lagemann & Miller, 1996).

For More Information:
Brown v. Board of Education


Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don't Cry. New York: Pocket Books 1994.

Bowles, S. & H. Gintis (1976). Schooling in Capitalist America. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Cass, James, ed. Education U.S.A., New York: Arno Press, 1973

Class Discussion from Education C191D, The Politics of Education, at the University of California at UCLA

Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much About History. Avon Books. 1995.

Ellison, Ralph. I Am A Man See Me (1952)

Glickstein, Howard A. The Continuing Challenge: The Past and Future of Brown v. Board of Education. Integrated Education Associates. 1975.

Hawley, Willis D. and Betsy Levin. The Courts, Social Science, and School Desegregation. Transaction Books. 1977.

James, B. & J. Slayton (1993). Brown in State Hands: State Policymaking and Educational Equality After Freeman V. Pitts. Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, V. 20, #3. Hastings College of the Law.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. Vintage Books. 1985.

Knappman, Edward W., ed. Great American Trials. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Lagemann, E. & L. Miller (eds.) (1996). Brown V. Board of Education: The Challenge for Today's Schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft Encarta '95. Computer Software. Microsoft Corp., 1994.IBM PC Running Windows 3.1 or higher, CD-ROM.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press .

Wolters, Raymond. The Burden of Brown: Thirty Years of School Desegregation. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Ziegler, Benjamin Munn, ed. Desegregation and the Supreme Court. Boston: D.C. Health and Company, 1958

Zirkel, Perry A., ed. A Digest of Supreme Court Cases Affecting Education. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa, 1978.

Prepared by: Purvi Mody, Janelle Scott, Dorie Gray

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