By Charlene Crowell, Freelance Writer
A quest to secure a quality education has affected virtually every generation in our unique African-American experience. From slavery when teaching Blacks to read was illegal, to riots reacting to court-ordered integration and more, access to a quality education remains a challenge for Blacks.
More than 60 years ago, nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices grappled with a question that was as simple as it was enduring: Is government enforced school desegregation unconstitutional? The impact of a decision announced on May 17, 1954 resonates even today.
Ironically, the case known as Brown v. Board of Education is actually a consolidation of five local desegregation cases from Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia. In all but the Delaware case of Gebhart v. Belton, the appeal to the country’s highest court was to reverse lower court opinions that upheld the precedent-setting 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson that established the “separate but equal doctrine.”
Homer Adolph Plessy, a Black man, refused to ride in the Jim Crow car of a train traveling through Louisiana, approximately 30 miles from New Orleans to Covington. Charged with violating a state law that required racial segregation, Plessy was convicted by Louisiana Judge John H. Ferguson.
When Plessy’s lawyer appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, he argued that enforced separation of the races violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Am-endment that guaranteed all citizens “equal protection under the law.” The 14th Am-endment’s ratification came five years following the Emancipation Proclamation. Legislatively, the amendment was to ensure newly-freed Blacks the same legal rights and privileges as Whites.
But in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 7-1 opinion authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown held that Louisiana’s segregation laws satisfied the amendment’s “equal protection” guarantee. The lone dissenting opinion came from Marshall Harlan, a Kentuckian and former slave owner.
Justice Harlan wrote, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens…In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
The Plessy decision triggered a series of Jim Crow laws, statutes requiring racial separation in both private residential areas and in public accommodations. After Plessy, few states or local governments enforced the quality of institutions and services available to Blacks. For more than 50 years in virtually every dimension of life, segregation was the law of the land.
But by 1951, Jim Crow was under attack. The locales varied, and so did the names. But the issue was consistently first-class citizenship and its rights, with education at the top of the list.
Five cases became the basis for Brown v. Board of Education
In Prince Edward County, Virginia, Barbara Rose Johns, a 16-year old high school junior, convinced a few hundred students to go on strike. The student protest was for the lack of heat and other facilities in their paper shack school.
One month after the two-week strike began, NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, Spottswood Robinson, filed suit in Richmond’s federal court. The first name on the list was Dorothy E. Davis, a 14-year old farmer’s daughter.
About the same time in Clarendon County, South Carolina, 34-year old Harry Briggs, a gas station attendant and Navy veteran, wanted improved school conditions for his five children. The county school district’s 276 White children attended one of two brick schoolhouses, rode school buses daily, had one teacher for every 28 students and cafeterias.
By comparison, Clarendon County’s 808 Black students attended one of three dilapidated wooden buildings with no plumbing. There was one teacher for every 47 students. Neither school buses, nor lunchrooms were available – even though some elementary age students walked as far as six miles, past White schools, just to reach their assigned schools.
The NAACP agreed to take the Clarendon County case if the community could come up with 20 plaintiffs willing to sue.
For nearly a year, Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a Black schoolteacher, worked to secure the needed signatures on a petition. During that time, his house was set afire and destroyed. Circumstantial evidence pointed to arson as a reprisal for Rev. DeLaine’s civil rights work. Moreover, both Harry Briggs and his wife lost their jobs and credit at a local bank.
Hundreds of miles away, Oliver Brown, a Topeka, Kansas father, resented his seven-year old daughter, Linda, crossing a dangerous set of railroad tracks at a switching yard only to reach a run-down bus that would take her the rest of the way to school. There was a closer school; but it was for White students only. Mr. Brown felt his daughter should be able to attend the closer school instead. With the help of the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall’s top assistant, Robert L. Carter and Jack Greenberg, a young White lawyer from Brooklyn argued the Brown case in Kansas’ federal district court.
When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the mounting school desegregation cases, it was December 9, 1952. Oral arguments lasted two days.
Arguing for the youthful plaintiffs, Thurgood Marshall led a legal team that included Robert L. Carter, Constance Baker Motley, James Nabrit and others. The team asserted that Black and White children possessed equal learning potential. Further they argued that there was no reasonable basis to segregate schools. According to Marshall, the effect on Black children was a loss of self-esteem and a blighted future.
Opposing counsel, John W. Davis, was at that time the leading constitutional lawyer in the nation, having argued 140 cases before the Supreme Court. He argued that segregation was not only fair but necessary. His only payment for his services was a silver tea service presented by the South Carolina legislature.
Days later on December 13, 1952 and at their regular Saturday conference, the Supreme Court Justices discussed the desegregation cases.
Chief Justice Fred Vinson, speaking first, defended Plessy, noting the lengthy precedent wrought by black letter law (a term used to describe basic principles of law that are accepted by a majority of judges in most states and, therefore, are no longer open for interpretation). Justice Stanley Reed, a Kentuckian, agreed with the Chief Justice.
Four Justices, Hugo Black, the oldest; William Douglas, the youngest; and both Justices Sherman Minton and Harold Burton expressed a willingness to overturn Plessy.
Justice Tom Clark favored the states be allowed to make their own, respective decisions.
Over several conference sessions, the Justices continued to wrestle with their decision until Justice Felix Frankfurter proposed to offer re-argument with the opposing counsels addressing five relevant questions:
- What evidence was there that the 14th Amendment was intended to cover school desegregation?
- Could Congress abolish school segregation on its own initiative?
- What was the Court’s power to do so?
- If ordered, should the remedy be gradually imposed or delayed?
- If the Court elected the gradual approach, what form should the decree take?
On June 8, 1953, it was announced that oral re-argument would take place on the following October 12.
With no clear majority, the decision’s outcome appeared to rest with Justices Frankfurter and Robert Jackson. But an unexpected development changed the course of deliberations that September: at the age of 63, Chief Justice Vinson died of a heart attack.
Fulfilling a presidential campaign promise to offer the first Supreme Court appointment to California’s Governor Earl Warren, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him as Interim Chief Justice on October 5, 1953 and re-arguments were delayed until December 8 that year.
Taking advantage of the additional time, Thurgood Marshall, Chief Legal Counsel of the NAACP assembled a 100-person squad of scholars, lawyers, and researchers to carefully craft responses to each of the five questions. Marshall also initiated a $15,000 fundraising campaign to support the expenses of his endeavor.
On re-argument and citing ‘separate but equal’ as a basic principle of American life, Attorney Davis told the Justices, it was “so often announced, so confidently relied upon, so long continued that it passes the limits of judicial discretion and disturbance.”
Directly challenging Davis, Attorney Marshall concluded his remarks with a forceful assertion.
“The only thing segregation can be is an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible,” said Marshall. “And now is the time, we submit, that this Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.”
Using his political skills of persuasion, the new Chief Justice, Earl Warren, worked behind the scenes to unite the Court on this key decision. He also assigned himself to write the opinion.
On May 17, 1954, Warren announced the decision using clear and easy to understand language, noting that education was “the most important function of state and local government.”
Posing the question of the hour, Warren asked, “Does the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race…deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities…We believe that it does…To separate Black children from others…solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority…that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be ever undone…We conclude unanimously that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
That same day, and in a prepared statement Dr. Arthur Schlessinger, Sr., then a Harvard University history professor said, “The Supreme Court has finally reconciled the Constitution with the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.”
Unfortunately, that view was not shared by all. Prince Edward County, Virginia closed all of its schools from 1959-1964. Its public schools were reopened only following an order issued by the Supreme Court.