This week marks the anniversaries of two landmark Supreme Court cases dealing with segregation. The first, Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. The other high court ruling, nearly six decades later, found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
An 1892 incident triggered the Plessy lawsuit. The Citizens Committee, a group of minorities in Louisiana, chose Homer Plessy to challenge a state law requiring segregation on trains. After Plessy was arrested for boarding a whites-only train car and found guilty of breaking the law, the Citizens Committee appealed his conviction. Their case, Plessy v. Ferguson (Ferguson refers to Judge John Howard Ferguson, who presided over the case in Louisiana) ended up at the Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1896, in a 7-1 decision against Plessy, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation is constitutional as long as the accommodations are “separate but equal.” In practice, accommodations in the Jim Crow system of legalized segregation were separate but not equal, and black citizens were forced to use inferior facilities throughout the South.
In the early 1950s, after two Supreme Court rulings against segregation in public universities, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund began looking for the ideal case to fight segregation in public schools more broadly. It chose a group of elementary school students and their parents in Topeka, Kan., and sued the school board. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Brown v. Board of Education, along with four others challenging school segregation elsewhere in the nation. (One of the other cases, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County, started with a student-led strike at R. R. Monton High School in Farmville, Va.)
The NAACP lawyers argued that no matter the quality of the separate facilities, segregated education made black students feel inferior and violated the 14th Amendment. The Topeka School Board argued that segregated education prepared students for the realities of segregated adult life. They cited examples of successful black individuals as proof that segregation didn’t necessarily deprive black students of the ability to succeed as adults.
After first failing to reach a decision and ordering both sides to prepare more information on the relationship between the 14th Amendment and education, the Supreme Court rehears the case. A unanimous decision issued on May 17, 1954, found that the role of education in the United States had changed greatly since the 19th century.
“Today,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “education is perhaps the most important function of the state and local governments. … It is the very foundation of good citizenship. … [It] is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In contrast to Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” language, this decision asserts that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”
The press reaction in the North was largely positive, calling it a “healing” ruling. In the South, editorials predicted social turmoil and noted that the court gave no timeline for the change to take place.
It would take nearly 20 years for American public schools to fully desegregate, but this ruling not only began the school integration process but jump-started the civil rights movement in general.