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

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (••)

In Topeka, Kansas in the 1950s, schools were segregated by race. Each day, Linda Brown and her sister, Terry Lynn, had to walk through a dangerous railroad switchyard to get to the bus stop for the ride to their all-black elementary school. There was a school closer to the Brown's house, but it was only for white students.

Topeka was not the only town to experience segregation. Segregation in schools and other public places was common throughout the South and elsewhere. This segregation based on race was legal because of a landmark Supreme Court case called Plessy v. Ferguson, which was decided in 1896. In that case, the Court said that as long as segregated facilities were equal in quality, segregation did not violate the Constitution.

However, the Browns disagreed. Linda Brown and her family believed that the segregated school system did violate the Constitution. In particular, they believed that the system violated the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing that people will be treated equally under the law.

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

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped the Browns. Thurgood Marshall was the attorney who argued the case for the Browns. He would later become a Supreme Court justice.

The case was first heard in a federal district court, the lowest court in the federal system. The federal district court decided that segregation in public education was harmful to black children. However, the court said that the all-black schools were equal to the all-white schools because the buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of the teachers were similar; therefore the segregation was legal.

The Browns, however, believed that even if the facilities were similar, segregated schools could never be equal to one another. They appealed their case to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court combined the Brown's case with other 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 does it mean to have segregated schools? 
  2. What right does the Fourteenth Amendment give citizens?  
  3. How did the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) affect segregation?  
  4. It is important for this case to determine what "equal" means. What do you think equality means to the Browns? What do you think equality means to the Board of Education of Topeka?

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