On May 19, 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed separate public schools for black and white schoolchildren in the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education decision (Brown I), one of the most important high court rulings in American history. A year later the same court ruled in its implementation decree (Brown II) that the process of creating integrated schools out of formerly all-white and all-black public schools had to go forward "with all deliberate speed." The Brown decision (parts I and II) was the culmination of a series of concerted legal battles against Jim Crow schools and other forms of American apartheid, such as separate public transportation and separate public accommodations. Spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's legal team and its head lawyer Thurgood Marshall these legal battles were crucial to the growing mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement.
Brown proved crucial to the assault on the entire edifice of separate black and white worlds in the Jim Crow South
and beyond. At the end of the nineteenth century, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) had established the legal fiction of separate black and white worlds as equivalent and, thus, constitutional. Separate was rarely equal, as evidenced in the woeful and systemic underfunding of black schools and discriminatory pay for black teachers. By overturning the guiding legal precedent as established in Plessy, Brown promised a new day: a fully integrated society beginning with the nation's schools.
A key line of argument in the case against Jim Crow generally, and Jim Crow schools specifically, was their negative impact on black self-esteem, especially that of black children. In other words, the invidious distinction imposed by legally mandated segregation promoted white supremacy and, in turn, enforced notions of black inferiority. A famous piece of evidence in particular in the original case relied upon the controversial doll test of Kenneth and Mamie Clark, pioneering black social psychologists. When the Clarks asked a series of black children whether they preferred a black or white doll, most preferred the latter. While social scientists have debated the viability and meaning of these kinds of tests their central argument curried wide favor with both contemporary and later audiences. The Clarks argued that the black child's preference for the white doll reflected the dehumanizing impact of white supremacy on the young black psyche. One step toward remedying this damage was to underscore notions of equality, sameness, and oneness by replacing Jim Crow with an integrated society.
Another argument against segregated schooling was that legally mandated racial separation braced white perceptions of white superiority and informal as well as institutionalized forms of white supremacy. In effect, Jim Crow also harmed white schoolchildren as well as white adults. Integrated schools where black and white children learned that they were fundamentally alike would not only erode racial fears and antipathies early on, but also lay the necessary groundwork for future generations of more racially enlightened citizens. As learned behavior, then, racial prejudice could be unlearned and a more racially egalitarian society created. The half-century after Brown witnessed both the dismantling of de jure segregation and a measure of racial progress. Unfortunately, it also witnessed the persistence of institutionalized patterns of racial inequality as reflected in the increasing resegregation of public schools in the early twenty-first century.
Kluger, Richard. 1975. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.
Martin, Waldo E., Jr., ed. 1998. Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.
Patterson, James T. 2001. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
WALDO E. MARTIN JR.