By Alisa Rao
In the early 1950s, when WW2 had finished, African-American soldiers & nurses were returning home. State legislators had promised better quality of life to African-Americans; however, African-Americans faced incredible hypocrisy when living standards did not meet their expectations.
Despite the promises made to African-Americans following the war, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws passed in 1915 continued to disadvantage African-Americans in Southern states in the 1950s and were justified using the explanation that this approach was ‘separate but equal’. These laws allowed segregation between whites and African-Americans in public facilities like libraries, schools, and buses. However, public facilities for African-Americans were often worse than those for whites.
Moreover, African-Americans faced a challenging socio-economic situation. Research shows that in a typical southern city, up to 75% of African-American males would hold unskilled jobs compared to 25% of white males. Lack of education equity also contributed to African-Americans’ social inequality. In southern states, blacks-only schools received less funding per student than white schools. In South Carolina’s Clarendon County, annual per capita funding for white children was $179 whereas for black students it was $43.
Aggression and violence by anti-black groups like the White League and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) created a challenging political situation as they intimidated and prevented communities from voting, resulting in low political involvement by African-Americans. Such socio-economic and political inequalities in the 1950s set the stage for the Brown v Board of Education court case.
Cause of the case:
Racial segregation in Southern states extended to Topeka, Kansas, where Oliver Brown’s daughter, 8-year-old Linda Brown and her sisters attended Monroe Elementary School in 1950. Their school had fewer textbooks, sports equipment and qualified teachers than the white-only schools. The students often received secondhand resources from white students. To get to school, Linda and her sisters had to walk across a railway, making a long journey. Brown saw this as inappropriate as it was dangerous for the little girls, especially when they could attend local white-only schools.
This is when the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), an organisation formed to seek civil rights advancement and fight against discrimination of the Jim Crow Laws, handpicked Brown’s case to challenge the Topeka Board of Education. The Brown case challenged the ruling of the Plessy v Ferguson case, which established that racial segregation is constitutional based on the justification that the races were ‘separate but equal’.
During the case:
In the fall of 1950, Oliver Brown and 12 other parents failed to enrol their children at local white-only schools. They then took their case against the Topeka Board of Education with the help of NAACP, becoming one of five such cases the District Court heard in 1951. Although Brown’s case failed, many African-Americans were excited that the case was heard, and according to the Public Broadcasting Service, “black newspapers and churches across the country trumpet[ed] this momentous occasion”.
In early 1952, NAACP lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case that December. However, after the hearing concluded, the outcome of the case was uncertain despite the NAACP lawyers’ strong arguments. They argued that segregation of educational facilities violated the individual’s right to liberty promised in the 14th Amendment and should be deemed unconstitutional. The Board of Education lawyers argued that the desegregation of schools in the south was within the “state’s rights”.
Prior to June 1953, the NAACP lawyers were optimistic that they would win the case. Thurgood Marshall, one of the NAACP lawyers, projected that they ‘would win three of the five cases’. However, in June 1953, the court announced that the Brown v Board of Education case needed to be reargued in December that year with additional question time for lawyers on both sides.
The NAACP fund was hit with a financial crisis as they exhausted their funds before the court hearing. However, black communities, from labour union workers to foundations, raised $39,000 for the lawyers so they could continue. At the December hearing, Marshall brought a team of historians & psychologists who helped him argue. These expert witnesses explained the Clark Doll Experiment, which proved that segregation was detrimental to the mental health of African-American children. They demonstrated that racial discrimination contributed to self-hatred and a sense of inferiority as the children assigned negative connotations to being dark-skinned.
May 14th 1954
The Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren unanimously ruled in Brown’s favour, bringing this gruelling four-year case to an end.
Consequences of the case:
The impact of the Brown case was positive amongst African-Americans but negative amongst the white community. The anti-segregation laws were issued in 1955 and schools were supposed to desegregate with ‘all deliberate and speed’. However, it was many years later when ALL schools were desegregated as many states refused to.
The white communities showed ‘massive resistance’ to the outcome of the case. Within a month of the court decision, Judge Thomas Brady called for the banning of the NAACP. Robert Patterson, set up the first White Citizens Council in Mississippi in 1954 to ‘protect’ the livelihoods’ of the white people and oppose desegregation and rival against the NAACP. The KKK in the late 1950s used violence and phone threats to stop desegregation.
The Brown case influenced ideas and methods for protests later in the movement. The ideas of desegregation in public facilities were used in 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and 1957 Little Rock . The peaceful protest method used was pushed by Martin Luther King in the Birmingham Campaign in 1963.
There are still arguments to this day about the case being won on a social level. Indeed, there is no legal segregation in schools anymore however, many historians and experts say that “public schools are more segregated now than 40 years ago”, due to the lack of resources and segregation of schools on a social level.