The words are some of the most iconic to ever come out of the U.S. Supreme Court: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that in his 1954 opinion in the case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. He highlighted the importance of the issue, saying education is perhaps the most important function carried out by state governments and that the circumstances of a child’s schooling have a profound effect on their life.
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,” Warren wrote.
On Wednesday, White House Special Advisor Valerie Jarrett is hosting a group of educators to mark the 62nd anniversary of the ruling and look at how issues related to segregation persist.
“The meeting will be an opportunity to recommit to the critical work that remains, remembering that the outcome in Brown v. Board was never inevitable,” Jarrett said ahead of the event.
Getting to the Brown decision was itself a nearly 60-year journey set off by the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in the case Plessy v. Ferguson.
Homer Plessy was a black man who was told to vacate a train car designated for whites in the southern state of Louisiana. He sued, saying his rights were violated under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that says no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The Supreme Court ruled against Plessy in an 8-1 decision.
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this is so, it is not because of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it,” Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote. His decision also said legislation cannot overcome social prejudices.
The laws allowing racial segregation on train cars were part of what were know as the Jim Crow laws that persisted for decades largely across the southern United States. They enforced things like separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and different schools. There were also extreme rules and taxes imposed on blacks who tried to vote, keeping most from participating in elections and helping white leaders remain in power.
By the time the Brown case reached the Supreme Court, some 17 states had legalized segregation in public schools, almost all in the South.
The effort to fight the laws was led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which recruited families in Topeka, Kansas to fight the city’s school system. Linda Brown was one of the students involved. Her family complained that she was barred from attending a white school much closer to their home and instead forced to go to a worse school farther away.
A lower court ruled that Topeka’s system was acceptable, saying the schools were substantially equal in their facilities and teachers.
The Supreme Court’s decision rejected that thinking, but even with the unanimous Brown ruling, desegregation was by no means immediate with several state resisting the order. A famous example happened in Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas, where in 1957 the state’s governor ordered National Guard troops to surround a high school to prevent a group of black students from attending classes. He said if they did, “blood will run in the streets.”
By 1958, seven states still had laws segregating public schools, and three states did in 1961.
Schools had several options for integration, including redrawing school district boundaries or busing students to different schools to change the racial balance.
Cities such as Boston had controversial busing programs for decades with parents complaining about kids being sent far from home and questioning whether the efforts were still necessary. Many of those programs have been abandoned, but segregation persists in U.S. schools.
The Civil Rights Project at UCLA says the number of schools where black students make up at least 90 percent of the population rose from about 6 percent to 19 percent between 1988 and 2013. At the same time, schools with 90 percent white student populations fell from 39 % to 18 %.
Part of the change, particularly the second figure, can be attributed to the U.S. becoming increasingly less white.
The Civil Rights Project says persistent segregation is worst in northern and western states, and that the 17 states with a history of explicit discrimination laws have not led the list since 1970.
“The ironic historic reality is that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court supported very demanding desegregation standards for the South while the interpretation of Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation limited the impact of Brown in the North and West.”
The latest desegregation ruling came Friday when a federal court in Mississippi ordered a school district there to consolidate its high schools and middle schools after failures to integrate with a case first brought in 1965. Its decision agreed with the Plessy ruling that the law alone cannot provide change but offered a different conclusion by saying schools have to make it work.
The court said “The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education. Although no court can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the district to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.”