This week (May 17) in 1954 America recovered some of her promise when the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous opinion in Brown vs. the Board of Education. In its wake, the legally sanctioned principle of “separate but equal” treatment of whites and blacks in the nation’s public schools became a thing of the past.
The ruling that had sanctioned “separate but equal” treatment was Plessy vs. Ferguson, which held that segregating the races was not discriminatory provided each race had access to “equal” facilities. Legally, the ruling was specious. Practically, it was a joke, especially in the South where white schools were equipped with modern teaching tools, while “equal” black schools were lucky to have blackboards and chalk.
In Topeka, Kansas, this disparity was not lost on Oliver Brown, whose daughter Linda was forced to pass by a spiffy whites-only school to attend a run-down black school farther away. Nor was it lost on Thurgood Marshall, the black head lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Marshall had been looking for a test case to overturn Plessy, in particular a case in a border state where racism was less ingrained than in the Deep South. Smartly, Marshall attacked segregation at its edges and then used those victories as stepping-stones toward his ultimate goal of abolishing it nationwide. Thus when Brown sued the Kansas school system, Marshall took his case, intending to bring it to the Supreme Court.
When it got there, recently appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren quickly saw Brown as a way to end this “separate but equal” segregation charade, but he felt that on an issue this divisive only a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court would have the legal and moral force to compel acquiescence, if not total acceptance.
That would be no small feat, because his fellow justices included several monumental egotists, one skeptical southerner, a “go-it-alone” maverick and a die-hard segregationist. It took Warren’s considerable negotiating skills to do it, but he finally got everyone to agree that Linda Brown’s 14th Amendment rights to equal treatment were being violated.
Warren read the court’s unanimous decision from the bench, with this ending: “We conclude that … the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The decision stunned the nation, and although it was only the beginning of the journey toward a new integrated America, it definitely marked the end of the old era in which segregation based on race, creed or color was sanctioned by law.
In that sense, although it wasn’t a “trial” per se, one could argue that for African-Americans, Brown vs. the Board of Education was the “Trial of the Century.”