Racial segregation in public schools and the controversial concept of “separate but equal” were unanimously declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court on this day in history, May 17, 1954.
The high court ruled 9-0 in favor of the plaintiffs in the landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
“May 17, 1954, was a great day — many would say the greatest day — in the history of that institution,” then-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said in Topeka in 2004, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decision.
“In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Attorneys who argued the case against segregation stand together smiling in front of the Supreme Court building on May 17, 1954, after the high court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Left to right, George E.C. Hayes, Washington, D.C.; Thurgood Marshall, special counsel for the NAACP; and James Nabrit Jr., professor and attorney at law at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)
The Brown v. Board ruling, among many other outcomes, marked a triumph for attorney Thurgood Marshall, chief legal counsel for the NAACP.
“The only thing can be is an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible,” Marshall said before the high court, arguing that “separate but equal” segregation flouted the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
“After Brown, Thurgood Marshall argued many more court cases in support of civil rights.”
Marshall died in 1993 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, celebrated as one of the greatest figures in the nation’s legal history.
Brown v. Board settled the issue of public-school segregation in the eyes of the high court. But the battle was fought in local communities for years to come.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace infamously made a “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama in 1963 to express his opposition to desegregation of the public institution, though the school had been integrated seven years earlier.
Wallace then sought the Democrat nomination for president three times, in 1964, 1972 and 1976, and as an independent candidate in 1968, running on a segregationist platform.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren oversaw the high court’s 9-0 decision in the 1954 Board v. Board of Education case, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. (Getty Images)
School segregation remains a challenge in society today, both because of economic and social factors — and because of a recent movement to re-segregate education in the name of social justice.
A recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine argued on behalf of segregated medical schools.
These efforts “deserve to be denounced,” activist Kenny Xu told “Fox & Friends” this month.
Despite recent trends, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring racial segregation unconstitutional remains the law of the land.