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

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law /

Summary of the Decision

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown.  The Court found the practice of segregation unconstitutional and refused to apply its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson to “the field of public education.”  Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the Court. 

The Court noted that public education was central to American life.  Calling it “the very foundation of good citizenship,” they acknowledged that public education was not only necessary to prepare children for their future professions and to enable them to actively participate in the democratic process, but that it was also “a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values” present in their communities. The justices found it very unlikely that a child would be able to succeed in life without a good education.  Access to such an education was thus “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

The justices then assessed the equality of the facilities that the Board of Education of Topeka provided for the education of African American children against those provided for white children.  Ruling that they were substantially equal in “tangible factors” that could be measured easily, (such as “buildings, curricula, and qualifications and salaries of teachers), they concluded that the Court must instead examine the more subtle, intangible effect of segregation on the system of public education.

Departing from the Court’s earlier reasoning in Plessy, the justices here argued that separating children solely on the basis of race created a feeling of inferiority in the “hearts and minds” of African American children.  Segregating children in public education created and perpetuated the idea that African American children held a lower status in the community than white children, even if their separate educational facilities were substantially equal in “tangible” factors.  This feeling of inferiority reduced the desire to learn and achieve in African American children, and had “a tendency to retard their educational and mental development and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.”  Concluding that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal”, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public education denied African American children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

One year later, the Court addressed the implementation of its decision in a case known as Brown v. Board of Education II.  Chief Justice Warren once again wrote an opinion for the unanimous court.  The Court acknowledged that desegregating public schools would take place in various ways, depending on the unique problems faced by individual school districts.  After charging local school authorities with the responsibility for solving these problems, the Court instructed federal trial courts to oversee the process and determine whether local authorities were desegregating schools in good faith, mandating that desegregation take place with “with all deliberate speed.”

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