Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and creating a fairer society. However, an equality-focused approach to education does not guarantee equity because students start from different points.
A major victory for the civil rights movement, Brown vs Board of Education, ended the segregation of public school students by declaring the “separate but equal” doctrine violated the Constitution. It is the most celebrated decision in LDF’s storied history of fighting for civil rights and still resonates today.
The unanimous decision declared that “the fundamental principle of equality underlies the Constitution and laws of the United States is violated when a State establishes a system of separate but equal educational facilities for its black and white children.”
Although the Court’s ruling did not achieve full desegregation of schools, it shifted the national debate on civil rights into a new direction and galvanized the burgeoning civil rights movement. It also served as a precedent for other legal challenges against segregation in housing, public accommodations, and universities.
Despite the Court’s unanimous ruling, the decision was not universally hailed as “the greatest decision in American history.” Some opponents felt it went too far and overstepped the Supreme Court’s constitutional powers by writing a new law. Others criticized the Court for relying on sociological data rather than legal precedent or established law to decide. The Brown vs Board of Education National Historic Site educates, inspires, provokes, and challenges visitors to understand how the principles embodied in this landmark Supreme Court case continue to impact their lives.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregation of educational facilities based on race violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision resulted from a long, hard-fought campaign by NAACP legal advocates, including Thurgood Marshall, who later became head of the Legal Defense Fund and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The legal strategy was conceived in the 1930s by Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of Howard Law School and the mentor of Marshall, and executed on the ground by NAACP lawyers in state courts nationwide.
The 1954 Brown decision was a vital intervention into a nation where barring people of color from various public spaces was “business as usual.” But the Court’s unanimous verdict in Brown did not end racial segregation in schools; today, many children have a harder time accessing equitable education.
For example, a recent study showed that Black students are more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school, and racial disparities in school funding have led to a $23 billion gap in resources between schools, with schools in predominantly black communities being significantly underfunded. These disparities are the product of systemic racism that persists in various ways, from institutional policies and practices such as school suspension to cultural norms that blame poor people for their poverty and paint it as a personal choice rather than a social issue.
In 1954, the NAACP launched a nationwide campaign to challenge segregated education. Thurgood Marshall and his team worked to develop a strategy that was less direct than attacking the notion of separate but equal facilities; they focused instead on educational equity and the ways schools and other institutions in the South violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by not providing meaningful educational opportunity to Black students.
The Supreme Court ruled that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. This decision was a watershed moment in American history that has helped desegregate many aspects of our society.
Unfortunately, it is still not enough. Even though the academic achievement of African American children has improved considerably in recent decades, they continue to be significantly behind white students on average. In addition, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers.
The racial education gap results from inequitable access to resources, including teachers and classrooms that are underfunded and inadequately staffed.
The 1954 Brown decision was a crucial milestone in American history that helped spur the Civil Rights Movement. It established that public education is a fundamental right and that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes segregation of schools unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision that allowed racial segregation as long as the facilities were “equal.”
But the court didn’t endorse mass desegregation. Instead, the federal government began allowing schools to integrate slowly through voluntary programs. However, these programs did little to close the gap between white and black students’ educational outcomes.
Even today, schools located in disadvantaged neighborhoods remain significantly underfunded. This gap is largely due to state budgeting and funding practices that ignore the needs of disadvantaged children. As a result, many families are suing states to force them to fund their education systems fully.
The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision struck down the doctrine of separate but equal, paving the way for future Supreme Court decisions that declared all forms of race-based state action unconstitutional. Brown helped to spur the civil rights movement and sparked changes in many areas of life, including higher wages for African Americans.