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 Supreme Court Decisions that Changed America 

Dr. Berman E. Johnson


Education’s role in social progress was greatly accelerated by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the United States Supreme Court.  This landmark Supreme Court decision ranks high among those which have promoted equal treatment and diversity, and it laid the foundation for equal rights in education.  The Supreme Court thus projected an issue in education which became a driving force that subsequently altered the economic, political, and social structure of this nation.

The Brown decision can be more fully understood when associated with two other Supreme Court decisions:  the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.  These three decisions were responses made to cases filed by African Americans, but they impacted all Americans more than any other Supreme Court decision.  Also, these decisions highlight the gradual development of equal rights in the United States and demonstrate how equal rights in education became a beacon for social justice that subsequently changed America.

U.S. Constitution and Equal Rights

 The challenges of equal rights can be traced back to the origins of the United States Constitution. When the 55 men who drafted the Constitution in 1787 set the governing foundations for this country, their perceptions of equal rights were somewhat different from those we value today.  However, they set the nation on an unprecedented course of social progress.  Never before had a government vested sovereign power to the people, promoted a power succession without hereditary rights and privileges, and developed a written Constitution with a Bill of Rights designed to protect the civil rights of its citizens.  But there were gross inequities that the Constitution did not address.  For example, women and non-property owners were not allowed to vote, Native Americans were treated like aliens in their own ancestral lands, and the black population -- which comprised 20 percent of the total population -- experienced a wide range of inequities.

The lack of equal rights in education was graphically displayed in the black communities.  In the northern states, black people were legally free but also legally discriminated against, they were not regarded as citizens, and nearly all schools refused to enroll them as students.  In the southern states, slaves were the master’s property for life, they had no rights that could be respected, and strict laws prohibited them from being educated.  The status of the black population became more definitive in the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The Dred Scott Decision of 1857

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave whose master was a United States Army surgeon who while on military assignment brought Scott and his wife and two children into Illinois and Minnesota where slavery was forbidden.  While in Illinois, black and white abolitionists encouraged Scott to sue for his freedom on the grounds that his residence in a free state made him a free man.  The case was litigated for 11 years when in 1857 Scott’s freedom was denied.  The Supreme Court Dred Scott decision confirmed what the nation had been practicing for several decades.  It ruled that slaves were property and they, along with all other black people in America, had no legal claim for equal rights.  The decision greatly disappointed blacks and angered some whites who had hoped that the nightmare of American slavery was approaching an end.  There was a concern that the nation was not following the course of most other Western Christian nations on slavery.  Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and France did so in 1848.  The decision split the nation into two camps -- slavery and antislavery -- and most importantly, it was one of the major stepping stones which led to the American Civil War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.

The Plessy v. Ferguson Decision of 1896

After the Civil War and during the Reconstruction Period, African Americans began to exercise some of the rights of citizenship.  They made great sacrifices in efforts to educate themselves and their children, and education became the most important part of family life.  Despite great restrictions such as inadequate segregated schools and insufficient public funds, literacy rates among African Americans rose from three percent to 50 percent in just 30 years.  This newfound progress, however, was short-lived by the Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.

The case began in 1891 with a civil complaint made by Homer Plessy in Louisiana.  Plessy was a New Orleans shoemaker whose parentage was seven-eighth white and one-eighth black.  Plessy objected to being segregated on trains within Louisiana and with the backing of influential African American civic and business leaders sued the state on the grounds that his Constitutional rights were being violated.  He argued that if skin color could be used as a basis of segregation, then discrimination against blondes or redheads could also be considered reasonable and legal.  Plessy further argued that segregation implied that African Americans were inferior.  In 1896, the Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision ruled against him to install a “separate but equal” doctrine which became the benchmark for segregation.

The “separate but equal” doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life and encouraged many states to launch a large offensive to legally relegate all African Americans to an inferior status.  Strict laws were passed to forcibly separate blacks from whites in every sector of the society including education, restrooms, hotels, public transportation, sports, hospitals, prisons, and even cemeteries.  African Americans were systematically denied the right to vote, and some cities established a 10:00 PM curfew for blacks.  Birmingham, Alabama even passed a law preventing blacks and whites from playing checkers together.  The Plessy v. Ferguson decision was a major setback in race relations, it put a legal stamp on racial oppression, and it subsequently sanctioned more than 50 years of legal discrimination and unequal opportunities.  Moreover, it set up false barriers of communication between blacks and whites that would impede social progress for decades to come.

The Brown v. Board of Education Decision of 1954

The Brown v. Board of Education decision served to turn the nation into another direction.  The case began in 1951 when Oliver Brown, a Topeka, Kansas African American, sued the Topeka Board of Education when his third grade daughter was denied admission to her neighborhood school because of the color of her skin.  The case was debated for nearly three years and the decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1954.  Essentially, the Brown decision ruled that segregated schools or separate educational facilities cannot be equal.  The Supreme Court confirmed Brown’s argument that segregated schools insured that African Americans would have an inferior education that would handicap their ability to function in American society, and ordered that each state end segregated public schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Reactions to the Brown Decision

The reactions to the Brown decision were mild at first, but they soon turned to violent protests in towns and cities throughout the nation.  The federal government had to send National Guard troops to quell the violence in the South and to insure that African American students could peaceably enroll in public schools and colleges.  Many public officials devised various schemes to maintain segregated schools, including the proliferation of private schools and even the suspension of compulsory school attendance.  In some communities, busing school children from one neighborhood to another was used to end segregation.  The forced busing of school children generated the greatest period of racial violence the nation had ever seen.

The Brown decision encouraged African Americans and liberal white Americans to attack segregation in nearly every segment of American life and culture.  Equal rights in education thus became indisputably linked with social justice.  By the 1960s a full-scale Civil Rights Movement developed nationwide, and despite the pleas of non-violent leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, the Movement was marked by violence and riots in nearly every large city.  African Americans and liberal white Americans demonstrated against segregated restaurants, hotels, and interstate travel.  They also boycotted businesses, employers, and goods and services which promoted segregation.  Clashes with the local police were common and the police reacted with unmitigated violence.  In short, the Brown decision on education spilled over into social issues that had never been addressed before, and it resulted in a constitutional revolution that lasted throughout the 1960s.  Many blacks and some whites lost their lives in the confrontations, federal troops had to be called into many northern cities where several city blocks were on fire, property damage ran over a billion dollars, and it became brutally apparent that America would never again be the same.

Aftermath of the Brown Decision

With federal intervention, the violence subsided by the early 1970s as major concessions were gradually made to install equal rights, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  A number of federal statutes were passed for the first time to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, immigration status, and disability.  The Brown decision encouraged protests and delivered gains among other Americans who were traditionally denied equal rights such as women, senior citizens, the physically disabled, and other minority ethnic groups.  The decision also had profound international consequences as it resonated with people worldwide who were oppressed, and inspired many nations to build a better, equitable, and more inclusive society.

By the mid-1970s, a more open society began to emerge in America where many vestiges of segregation were outlawed or abandoned.  The nation thus began to live out its creed, imbedded in the spirit of the Constitution, that all people are equal under the sight of God.  Today, though far from perfect, the United States is a world leader and strong proponent for civil rights and human rights. 

Since education is the key to success, it should not be surprising that the Brown decision would deliver such great change in America.  In fact, it substantiates the statement, made long ago by one of the framers of the Constitution, that “Education is the most important function of the state.”  But in 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously upgraded this statement to read and implement that: “Education is the most important function of the state and federal governments.” 

Despite its monumental impact, the Brown v. Board of Education decision has yet to fulfill its potential, it has not eliminated all segregation in the public schools, and some desegregation court orders are still pending.  Consequently, we have vestiges of inferior education in some public schools primarily attended by African Americans.  Violence, gangs, and drugs too often interfere with the educational process so that not enough time and energy can be devoted to student growth and development.  Also, negative peer group pressure often diminishes the value of student achievement to the extent that some students feel that it isn’t “cool” to succeed academically.  Moreover, African American males have the smallest college enrollments and the lowest college graduation rates of any group in America.  These conditions are unjustifiable and a disservice to those who diligently fought for equal rights in education.  They present a challenge to educators, parents, and students to live out the dream and precepts of equal rights in education that was so highly valued in past generations.


 In 1992, the United States Congress passed a law establishing a National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas to commemorate the Brown v. Board of Education decision.  Congress also appropriated funds for a 50th Anniversary Celebration that will take place in Topeka on May 17, 2004.  Ideally, the Celebration should not be just a recognition of what the Brown decision accomplished; it should be a call to address what the Brown decision overlooked or failed to accomplish.  Whatever assessment is made of the Brown decision, however, some important points of reference will continue to be the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision proved to be more than just a decision to desegregate schools and it provides many lessons for change and social progress.  It should remind us that the United States began as a bold enterprise with equal rights as the capstone of social progress and the plight of African Americans as the harbinger for change.  The challenge is to learn from the successes and failures of that enterprise so that change will be less violent and less chaotic.  In so doing, we can begin to move towards a more perfect union for ourselves and our posterity with liberty and justice for all.

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