As late as the 1950s, society in the Southern United States remained racially segregated by law. The segregation laws in these states were supported by an 1896 Supreme Court ruling. In the case of PLessy vs. Ferguson, the Court had ruled that “seperate but equal” public facilities for blacks and whites did not violate the Constitution. This ruling set a pattern that forced Southern black Americans to live almost totally segregated from white society.
A strong civil rights movement in the United States had developed by the 1950s, and ending segregation in public schools became one of its primary targets. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a legal battle to gain admission for qualified black Americans to professional and graduate schools. NAACP lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, then took the broader issue of segregatioin in public schools.
In 1954 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The case involved Linda Brown, an eight year old black girl from Topeka. Linda was required to attend an all black school 20 blocks from her home, even though there was an all white school only a few blocks away. With help from the NAACP, Linda’s father, Oliver Brown, sued the Topeka Board of Education so that his daughter could attend the nearby all whtie school. NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall challenged the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling and argued that even if seperate black schools were equal to white schools, black children were still suffering great psychological damage.
On May 17,1954, Chief Justice EArl Warren announced that it was the unanimous decision of the Court that “seperate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Warren said that to separate grade school children “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.” School segregation laws, thereforem violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The “separate but eaual” doctorine of Plessy vs. Ferguson was overruled.
Opponents of segregation hailed the Court’s decision, but others denounced it as “an abuse of judicial power.” In 1955 the Supreme further ruled that the states should proceed “with all deliberate speed” to enforce the Brown ruling. However, the desegregation of schools went slowly and met resistance by many whites. Ten years after the Brown decision, a vast majority of black students were still in segregated schools. It was not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the federal government was given the power to push for school desegregatioin. Despite slow enforcement, the Brown decision inspired civil rights leaders to work against other segregation laws. Later legal decisions led to a clearer definition of the protections offered to all Americans by the 14th and 15th Amendments.