Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law /

Background Summary & Questions (•••)

In the early 1950s, Linda Brown was a young African American student in the Topeka, Kansas school district. Every day she and her sister, Terry Lynn, had to walk through the Rock Island Railroad Switchyard to get to the bus stop for the ride to the all-black Monroe School. Linda Brown tried to gain admission to the Sumner School, which was closer to her house, but her application was denied by the Board of Education of Topeka because of her race. The Sumner School was for white children only.

Under the laws of the time, many public facilities were segregated by race. The precedent-setting Plessy v. Ferguson case, which was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1896, allowed for such segregation. In that case, a black man, Homer Plessy, challenged a Louisiana law that required railroad companies to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and African American races. He claimed that the Louisiana law violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which demands that states provide "equal protection of the laws." However, the Supreme Court of the United States held that as long as segregated facilities were qualitatively equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the Court classified segregation as a matter of social equality, out of the control of the justice system concerned with maintaining legal equality. The Court stated, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."

 

At the time of the Brown case, a Kansas statute permitted, but did not require, cities of more than 15,000 people to maintain separate school facilities for black and white students. On that basis, the Board of Education of Topeka elected to establish segregated elementary schools. Other public schools in the community were operated on a nonsegregated, or unitary, basis.

The Browns felt that the decision of the Board violated the Constitution. They sued the Board of Education of Topeka, alleging that the segregated school system deprived Linda Brown of the equal protection of the laws required under the Fourteenth Amendment.

No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
—Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Thurgood Marshall, an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued the Brown's case. Marshall would later become a Supreme Court justice.

The three-judge federal district court found that segregation in public education had a detrimental effect upon black children, but the court denied that there was any violation of Brown's rights because of the "separate but equal" doctrine established in the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy decision. The court found that the schools were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of teachers. The Browns appealed their case to the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that the segregated schools were not equal and could never be made equal. The Court combined the case with several similar cases from South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case came in 1954.

Questions to Consider
  1. What right does the Fourteenth Amendment give citizens?
  2. What problems did Linda Brown encounter in Topeka that eventually resulted in this case?
  3. What precedent did the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling establish? How was that precedent related to Brown?
  4. This case is based on what the concept of "equality" means. What are the conflicting points of view on this concept in this case?

< Brown v. Board of Education