When presenting their case before the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s legal defense team made two key arguments:
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees citizenship to all persons born in the U.S., and bars the states from passing or enforcing laws "which shall abridge the privileges or immunities" of citizens, "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law", or "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws".
Marshall based the second argument listed above, in part, on the “doll test”: a psychological study conducted by Kenneth Clark. In this study, young, black students were given a white doll and a brown doll. Clark asked test subjects a series of questions designed to elicit their understanding of race and racial preference. When asked which doll they preferred, the majority of the students chose the white doll, and attributed positive characteristics to it.
When Chief Justice Earl Warren read the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954, it was clear that he had been convinced by both of the NAACP's arguments.
Citing the importance of education in the United States, and the growing role of state and local governments in ensuring educational opportunities for their citizens, Warren ruled that segregation of public education violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
Warren’s decision then cited Kenneth Clark’s “doll test” and other psychological studies to argue that the separation of children on the basis of race made segregation unconstitutional, even if the facilities provided were equal in nature.
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place”, Warren stated, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
- According to Warren, why did segregation in education violate the Fourteenth Amendment?
- According to Warren, what effects did segregation have on African-American children?
The Brown decision was another installment in a series of important transformations in the relationship between the federal government and the American people.
During the Progressive era, Americans began to look to government for solutions to problems associated with modernity, such as those brought on by industrialization and urbanization. The New Deal ushered in modern liberalism and the welfare state, leading Americans to expect government to provide them with basic levels of economic and social security. The Brown decision contributed to a growing expectation that the federal government should ensure individual civil rights.
The Brown decision required local school districts, state legislatures, and, if necessary, the federal government to intervene in American communities (through their schools) and to correct social ills. This extension of federal power increased the expectations of civil rights activists who battled inequality.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, and continuing into the 21st century, citizens organized locally to address specific issues and grievances. Their efforts were amplified by mass communication and collective mobilization, and were supported by state and national organizations. When government seemed unresponsive to their demands, they sometimes turned to the federal court system.
These strategies were commonly used during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They continue to be used by movements supporting gay marriage and transgender rights, and by other contemporary social movements.
Civil rights activists celebrated the Brown decision. It validated the NAACP’s legal strategy of using the court system to end segregation. The Brown decision reflected Chief Justice Warren's belief — which was shared by many Americans — that education would open doors to individual opportunity and social harmony.
Nevertheless, questions regarding how to integrate segregated school systems remained unanswered:
In 1955, the Supreme Court ordered segregated school systems to begin desegregation. However, it did not define any desegregation standards or establish a timetable. The order required schools to comply with the Brown decision with “all deliberate speed”.
In many districts in the South, “all deliberate speed” began with a period of white resistance to desegregation.
EXAMPLEThomas P. Brady, a circuit court judge in Mississippi, encouraged the organization of White Citizens Councils throughout the South. Beginning in 1954, more than half a million southerners joined the councils to block school desegregation.
In 1956, 101 southern members of Congress issued a “Declaration of Constitutional Principles”, also known as the Southern Manifesto, to establish a legal basis for opposition to the Brown decision:
The Manifesto argued that the implementation of the Brown decision was an exercise of judicial power “contrary to the Constitution” that was “creating chaos and confusion in the states principally affected”. It declared that school desegregation was “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through ninety years of patient effort by the good people of both races”.
The resistance movement fueled by the Southern Manifesto drew upon previous episodes in southern history, specifically the Civil War.
EXAMPLEThe Confederate battle flag, used during the Civil War, reappeared throughout the South following the Brown decision.
Celebration of the Confederate battle flag invoked a time when southerners bravely defended a social order in which blacks knew their place and whites were superior. Some white southerners were not afraid to use violence to defend this order. The most shocking instance of this occurred in Mississippi, in August of 1955.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who attended an integrated school in Chicago, was vacationing with relatives in Mississippi. While visiting a white-owned store, he made a remark to the white woman behind the counter. What Till said is not known. Some claim that he whistled at the woman, perhaps to get her attention. Others say that Till asked the woman for a date, and touched her hand or waist.
Regardless of what occurred, the woman’s husband and his half-brother went to the home of Till’s relatives in the middle of the night and abducted the boy. Till’s beaten and mutilated body was found in a nearby river three days later.
Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago. Images of his disfigured body were published in newspapers nationwide, revealing the brutality of southern racism. The subsequent acquittal of the two men who admitted to the killing by an all-white jury further exposed the inherent racism of southern justice.
Till’s murder, along with other instances of open resistance in the South, revealed that a broader effort was required to ensure compliance with the Brown decision.
Among those inspired by Till’s death was Rosa Parks, an NAACP member from Montgomery, Alabama, who became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man and the Montgomery police arrested her.
After being bailed out of jail, Parks and other civil rights activists in the city, including the Women’s Political Council (a group of African American female activists) organized a boycott of Montgomery’s buses. News of the boycott spread through newspaper notices and word of mouth. On December 5th, the first day of the boycott, 40,000 blacks refused to ride the bus in Montgomery.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott is remembered as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement because of the individuals and groups that supported it. Among them was a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr, who had recently come to Montgomery to serve as the pastor of a Baptist church.
For the next year, blacks in Montgomery, many of whom did not own cars, boycotted the city’s buses. Some organized carpools. Others rode in African American-owned taxis, whose drivers reduced their fees. Most walked to and from school, work, and church for 381 days (i.e., the duration of the boycott).
In June of 1956, an Alabama federal court ruled that Montgomery’s segregation ordinance was unconstitutional. The city appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision in November of 1956. Montgomery’s buses were officially desegregated.
Following the successful outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, tensions over the Brown decision came to a head in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Central High School was ordered to accept its first nine black students. Rather than allow the Little Rock Nine to attend classes, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to prevent the students from entering the building. A subsequent attempt by the nine students to attend school resulted in mob violence.
Since the the Arkansas Governor had violated a federal court order, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was required to intervene. Eisenhower did not want to force the southern states to integrate their schools, but the Governor’s actions directly challenged the authority of the federal government. The President had to respond.
Eisenhower first placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control. Next, he ordered the U.S. Army to send soldiers to Central High School. Those soldiers escorted the Little Rock Nine to and from their classes throughout the entire school year.
Throughout the school year, the Little Rock Nine were insulted, harassed, and physically assaulted; nevertheless, they returned to school each day. At the end of the school year, the first African American student graduated from Central High.
At the beginning of the 1958-1959 school year, Governor Faubus ordered all of Little Rock’s public schools closed. He preferred depriving students of education to having them attend integrated schools. In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Little Rock schools must be reopened, and that desegregation must proceed.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the events in Little Rock resulted in important civil rights advances. However, Jim Crow remained entrenched in the South. Residential segregation and racial discrimination persisted in the North and West as well. The mobilization of the civil rights movement at Montgomery, Little Rock, and elsewhere during the 1950s indicated that civil rights battles would occur during the 1960s.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Clark doll test, 1947, LOC, http://bit.ly/2oPVlWM E. Warren, PD http://bit.ly/2pAMtmQ Brown v. Board of Education (1954), NARA, retrieved from: http://bit.ly/2qlMk7P The Southern Manifesto retrieved from: Walker, P. R., & Roberts, T. J. (2015). Remember Little Rock: the time, the people, the stories. Washington, DC: National Geographic. Flag, PD: http://bit.ly/2pPlOnd E. Till, PD: http://bit.ly/2oQ2Cpq Parks Arrest, PD: http://bit.ly/2pyn8bv Parks on bus, 1956, LOC: http://bit.ly/2qlzNBo Derived from Openstax tutorial 28.5 http://bit.ly/2jZPqfv. Some sections edited