Brown v. Board of Education
Trial Court Strategy Produces Supreme Court Success
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
In 1894, the Supreme Court issued its infamous opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, holding that racially segregated public facilities were constitutional so long as they were “equal.” Six decades later, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) concluded that the time was right to challenge Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” endorsement of racial segregation. Marshall and his colleagues challenged segregation laws in public schools in five separate jurisdictions. For each of the cases, the NAACP’s attorneys attacked segregation using a different strategy. They employed different legal arguments, appealed to different historical evidence, and cited different psychological studies to the courts. Knowing they faced an uphill battle to prevail in trial courts that would consider themselves bound by Plessy v. Ferguson as precedent, the NAACP’s attorneys structured their trial strategies with an eye toward getting one or more of the cases to the Supreme Court. As they expected, all of the plaintiffs lost at trial. But the NAACP’s “failures” at the trial level of those five cases formed the foundation of Marshall’s ultimate triumph. The Supreme Court consolidated all five cases on appeal, and the name of one of those cases—Brown v. Board of Education—remains one of the most significant legal decisions in U.S. history. In that landmark 1954 case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. The trial strategies employed by Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP colleagues paved the way for a decision that continues to reverberate today.
NAACP supporters gather at the Prince Edward County Courthouse in Virginia to commemorate the 7th anniversary of Brown v. Board. Though Brown was a landmark legal victory, the decision did not end racial segregation overnight. NAACP leaders chose this rally location, in part, because Prince Edward County had closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate in response to Brown. (Getty images/Bettmann)
The South Carolina and Kansas Cases: Psychological Harm and the Fourteenth Amendment
In the South Carolina case, NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, and Spottswood Robinson argued that segregated schools caused psychological harm to black children and violated their rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. They employed ground-breaking social science testimony and evidence from some of the nation’s leading child psychologists, including the famous doll study demonstrating that segregation injured the self-esteem and psyches of African-American children. See Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark “Racial identification and preference among negro children.” reprinted in E.L. Hartley (Ed.) Readings in Social Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston (1947).
Notwithstanding this evidence, two of the three judges on the South Carolina trial court panel found that the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was binding precedent. They thus held that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. Judge Julius Waties Waring dissented, stating, “I am of the opinion that all of the legal guideposts, expert testimony, common sense and reason point unerringly to the conclusion that the system of segregation in education adopted and practiced in the state of South Carolina must go and go now. Segregation is per se inequality.” Briggs v. Elliott, 98 F. Supp. 529, 548 (1951).
In the Kansas case, NAACP attorneys Charles Scott, John Scott, Charles Bledsoe, Robert Carter, and Jack Greenberg also argued that segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment and psychologically harmed black students. The three-court panel of judges in that case conceded that a policy of segregation was harmful to the education of Topeka’s black children. However, they ultimately ruled unanimously that Topeka’s segregated black and white schools were comparable enough to make Topeka’s segregated school system constitutional under Plessy.
Lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. in 1957. (Left to Right) Louis L. Redding, Robert L. Carter, Oliver W. Hill, Thurgood Marshall, Spottiswood W. Robinson, James M. Nabrit, Harold Boulware, and Charles Scott. (NAACP Archives/ NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund)
The district court opinion demonstrates the power of Supreme Court precedent in lower courts. Years later, one of the three judges in the Kansas case remarked, “We weren’t in sympathy with the decision we rendered. … If it weren’t for Plessy v. Ferguson, we surely would have found the law unconstitutional. But there was no way around it—the Supreme Court would have to overrule itself.” See Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality 425 First Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2004) (quoting Judge Walter A. Huxton, author of the district court opinion).
Thurgood Marshall built on this foundation during his Supreme Court oral argument stating, “The Negro child is made to go to an inferior school; he is branded in his own mind as inferior. …You can teach such a child the Constitution, anthropology and citizenship, but he knows it isn’t true.”
The Virginia Case: Discrimination and Equal Protection Under the Fourteenth Amendment
Acting in his capacity as Executive Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall directed NAACP staff attorneys, Oliver Hill, and Spottswood Robinson to look for a case in Virginia to challenge segregation directly. Shortly after learning that African-American students in Farmville, Virginia were planning a strike to protest poor school conditions. Hill and Robinson traveled to the town and convinced them to instead file a lawsuit challenging the segregation law. The Virginia suit claimed that segregation in public schools constituted discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which prohibits states from “deny[ing] any person within [their] jurisdiction equal protection of the laws.” Compared to the Kansas and South Carolina courts, the judges on the Virginia court were not as sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ claims. The Virginia trial court unanimously upheld Farmville’s segregation, relying heavily upon testimony from the State’s expert witness challenging the NAACP’s arguments about the harmful effects of segregated education. That witness claimed that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. He therefore argued that it was in everyone’s best interest to separate the races. The Virginia panel unanimously rejected the students’ request stating, “We have found no hurt or harm to either race.” Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 103 F. Supp. 337, 340 (E.D. VA 1952).
The Delaware Cases: Harm Based on Inferior Education and the Fourteenth Amendment
Black students in Delaware were required to endure long commutes to dilapidated schools that didn’t offer the same courses or opportunities as closer white schools. In two cases, NAACP attorneys, Louis Redding and Jack Greenburg, argued that segregated schools had led to inferior education for black children, which harmed them and violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The court in Bulah ruled that black students were receiving an inferior education and must be admitted to white schools; however, they declined to strike down the principle of separate but equal from Plessy, saying that responsibility belonged to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Washington, D.C Case: Denial of Due Process in the Fifth Amendment
The African-American population in Washington, D.C. doubled between 1930 and 1950 resulting in serious overcrowding in the schools. Black schools were forced to have multiple shifts, eroding the quality of education, while some white schools remained half empty. James Nabrit, Jr., and George Hayes, acting on behalf of Spottswood Bolling, Jr., a 12-year-old black student who was denied admission to a white school near his home, sued the president of the D.C. Board of Education. Nabrit and Hayes argued that racial segregation was unconstitutional because it denied black children due process of law as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The trial court dismissed the case on the basis that separate but equal remained the law of the land.
The Supreme Court’s Consolidation of School Segregation cases in Brown
Appeals for each of the school segregation cases named above were filed in the Supreme Court in 1951. Just three days before the scheduled argument for Brown, the Court announced that the case would be combined with the other segregation cases that had been appealed, and argument would be rescheduled. After the first round of arguments in 1952, the Supreme Court ordered all five cases to be reargued in the 1953 term. In the interim, Chief Justice Fred Vinson, one of the four justices who originally voted to uphold segregation, died of a heart attack. President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to take Vinson’s place as chief justice. Thurgood Marshall used the arguments made at trial and offered the findings of the trial courts that would have struck down segregation laws if not for the standard set by Plessy v. Ferguson. In May 1954, the Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision, overturning the separate but equal principle of Plessy and declaring racially segregated schools unconstitutional. This decision, written by Chief Justice Warren, helped establish the precedent that the “separate but equal” doctrine had no place in public education because segregation was “inherently unequal” and citizens were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Brown, 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954).