In 1986, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case established that there could be separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites, giving support to Jim Crow laws. The Supreme Court did not begin to reverse Plessy until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case 58 years later, which established that segregating blacks and whites was unconstitutional and that separate could never be equal. After the period of reconstruction following the Civil War, many states in the south and other regions of the country passed laws that discriminated against African-Americans. These laws ranged from restrictions on voting to requirements that blacks and whites use separate facilities and attend separate schools. On June 7, 1892, Homer A. Plessy, a man who was one-eighth black and seven-eighths white, bought a train ticket to travel from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. Under Louisiana law, he was considered black and was required to ride in the “colored” car.
Because Plessy sat in the “whites only” car, he was arrested and put in jail in New Orleans (Frost-Knappman). Plessy faced trial for his crime of riding in a railroad car for whites only. John A. Ferguson presided over his trial in federal district court. He was found guilty, and the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld his conviction. Plessy then appealed to the United States Supreme Court for an order forbidding Louisiana-in the person of Judge Ferguson-from carrying out his conviction (Frost-Knappman). On April 13, 1896, Plessy’s lawyers argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Their argument was that Louisiana had violated Plessy’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law (Cozzens). Attorney General Cunningham argued that the law merely made a distinction between blacks and whites and did not necessarily treat blacks as inferiors (Cozzens). On May 18, 1896, the court issued its decision, upholding the Louisiana law: A [law] which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races–a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long a white men are distinguished from the other race by color–has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races (Frost-Knappman).
The court also endorsed the “separate but equal” doctrine, ignoring the fact that blacks had almost no control over how “equal” black and white facilities were (Frost-Knappman). In years to come, black schools, railroad cars, and other facilities were very rarely as good as those of whites. For the next 58 years blacks continued to be discriminated against through segregation. This led to the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. Brown was an eight-year-old girl named Linda and was the daughter of Oliver Brown, a quiet, hard-working man who served as an assistant pastor and sexton at St. John African Methodist Epicostal Church in Topeka, Kansas (A Moment in History). “Linda Brown attended a school that was more than three miles from her home. Her trip to school involved a six-block walk along the train tracks to catch a bus that took her the rest of the way” (Pratt). In 1950, Oliver Brown sought to enroll his daughter at the nearby white Sumner Elementary School (Hollaway). The superintendent, Kenneth McFarland, had always favored segregation and informed Brown that Topeka was not yet ready to make the change (Hollaway). The school board supported McFarland in his decision (Hollaway).
On August 25, 1950, Lucinda Todd, secretary of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), wrote to the national office in New York, saying that the school situation in Topeka had grown unbearable and that the local branch was willing to go to court to challenge the Kansas law. Local attorneys Charles Bledsoe, John Scott, and Charles Scott drew up the legal papers. However, “it was not easy to find blacks willing to serve as plaintiffs in the case.” Lucinda Todd was the first to volunteer. Eventually, twelve others followed. All were the parents of children who had been denied admission to white schools, and all were women except for Oliver Brown who was listed as the lead plaintiff (Pratt). The case was officially filed with the U.S. District Court for Kansas on February 28, 1951. “Though sympathetic with the plaintiff’s argument, the District Court unanimously refused to grant relief” (Cozzens).
Immediately after the lower court’s ruling, the NAACP attorneys began to prepare their appeal. Similar school desegregation suits were being filed in the District of Columbia, Delaware, Virginia, and South Carolina. The central issue of the cases shifted from unequal funding to the fact that segregation was unconstitutional and a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. In December 1952, the Supreme court decided to group the five cases together and hear them simultaneously. The cases became known as Brown v. Board of Education (Cozzens). On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for a unanimous court that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” In summing up the court’s opinion Warren concluded: “To separate [black children] from others of similar age solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community.” In 1955, the court handed down its enforcement decree in Brown II, “which said that the desegregation of public schools should proceed with deliberate speed” (Hollaway).
Ironically, Linda Brown had by this time started to attend an integrated middle school. However, thousands of other children benefited from the courts decision (Pratt). Eventually this decision would be used to dispel other segregation laws and practices. For example, the separate but equal doctrine was abolished (Frost-Knappman). Today, de facto segregation still exists in some areas because of residential patterns and other factors. However, much progress has been made. Were it not for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, The U.S. would probably not be quite so far along in the quest for public integration of races.
Cozzens, Lisa. Brown v. Board of Education. 29 June 1998. 14 April 2002 . —. Plessy v. Ferguson. 17 Sep. 1999. 18 April 2002 . Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, Edward W. Knappman, Lisa Paddock, eds. Courtroom Drama. 1998. New England Publishing Associates, Inc. Hollaway, Kevin. “The Ruling–Brown v. Board of Education.” Civil Rights: A Status Report. 13 Dec. 1996. 14 April 2002 . “A Moment in History: Brown v. Board of Education.” Learning Network. 14 April 2002 . Pratt, Robert A. “Segregation Overruled.” National Parks. Sep./Oct. 1993.