May 17 marks the anniversary of the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Prior to Brown, many parts of the United States permitted segregation in public education based on the principle of ‘separate but equal,’ a doctrine based on the longstanding decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Brown brought together cases from four different states challenging the validity of that doctrine.
The court considered whether segregation was consistent with the framers’ intent in the Fourteenth Amendment but found little support there for overruling Plessy. In order to forge a unanimous opinion, the justices rested their decision on the critical role education plays in determining personal opportunity and development, finding that racial segregation generated irreversible feelings of inferiority in black children. The court concluded that segregated schools were inherently unequal and abandoned the premise that ‘separate but equal’ did not cause harm or stigmatization.
Landmark Supreme Court Cases: A Reference Guide, Donald E. Lively (Greenwood Press, 1999).
Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture and the Constitution, Robert J. Cottrol (University Press of Kansas, 2003).
Education Law Stories, Michael A. Olivas (Foundation Press, 2007).
Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States, David S. Tanenhaus (Macmillan Reference USA, 2008).