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 the early 1950s, many students went to different schools because of their race. White children went to one school and black children went to a different school. This system was called segregation. During this time, segregation was legal. Many other public facilities were also segregated.

Segregation was legal because of past court decisions. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States decided a case called Plessy v. Ferguson. In this case, the Court said that segregation was legal when the facilities for both races (trains, bathrooms, restaurants, etc.) were similar in quality.

Under segregation, all-white and all-black schools sometimes had similar buildings, busses, and teachers. Sometimes, the buildings, busses, and teachers for the all-black schools were lower in quality. Often, black children had to travel far to get to their school. In Topeka, Kansas, a black student named Linda Brown had to walk through a dangerous railroad to get to her all-black school. Her family believed that segregated schools should be illegal.

The Brown family sued the school system (Board of Education of Topeka). The district court said that segregation hurt black children. However, the district court also said the schools were equal. Therefore, the segregation was legal.

The Browns disagreed with the decision. They believed that the segregated school system did violate the Constitution. They thought 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 Browns appealed the case to a higher court. The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear the case.

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?
< Brown v. Board of Education