Background on NAACP Thurgood Marshall & the FBI Military Desegregation  
Chambers v. Florida(1940) Smith v. Allwright(1943) Shelley v. Kraemer(1947) Sipuel v. Univ. of Oklahoma(1948) Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

    Thurgood Marshall argued many influential and well-known cases in his time, but quite possibly the most famous is Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. This was actually a consolidation of five different cases which all involved the same issue - segregation of the public school system. At the time, all public schools were segregated by law. The Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) precedent had established that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional if they were of equal quality. So by 1900, the South was entirely and legally segregated.

    In reality, these separate facilities were not nearly equal. For instance, the problem brought up in Brown and its precursors was that the black schools had few teachers and little funds, and were not at all equal to the white schools. In 1949, with the help of the NAACP, the Briggs v. Elliot case was brought to the court on behalf of sixty-seven parents and their children living in Clarendon County, South Carolina. This case caught Thurgood Marshall’s attention. He urged the Briggs family to include in their case a claim that segregation was unconstitutional. The ruling judge, Warren, after reading Marshall’s initial brief, urged him to drop the case and make a frontal attack of segregation, but Marshall refused. Byrnes, who was the defense attorney for the state, ordered a $75 million bond to upgrade the African-American schools and asked the court in his brief for time to fix the inequality then present in the state schools. In the district court, he defended segregation as “a valid exercise of legislative power.” The court ruled in Byrnes’ favor not only because of the Plessy precedent but because the state seemed to be making progress towards making the two school systems equal. Marshall appealed immediately to the Supreme Court, but the case was remanded to the South Carolina court.

    Meanwhile, similar cases were emerging across the nation. Cases from Delaware, Virginia, Kansas, and Washington, D.C., including the Briggs case, were consolidated into the case known today as Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. The African-American families who brought Brown to the court wanted their children to be allowed to attend the white schools, which were closer to home and better staffed and equipped. The prosecution, led by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, insisted that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens of the United States; the defense, led by John W. Davis, maintained that the precedent of Plessy would easily resolve the cases in the respective states’ favor. The Supreme Court hearings began in 1952.

    Marshall used a very sociological tactic in his prosecution. He relied on the findings of Dr. Kenneth Clark, who was famous for his doll tests. He found that although black children tended to “identify” with their black dolls, they demonstrated a marked preference for their white dolls, which according to Dr. Clark indicated a low self-esteem. Thirty-five other psychologists, sociologists, and social scientists also signed this part of Marshall’s brief.

    Davis, the defense attorney, genuinely believed that segregation was preferable for both races. He was a white supremacist, and was convinced that there were anatomical differences between the races. In stark contrast to Marshall, he believed that the Constitution was not a “living document” that could be interpreted differently and changed over the years.

    After the first round of oral arguments, the Court could not come to a majority decision, and so scheduled another round for the following June of 1953, leaving both sides with five questions about the Fourteenth Amendment to prepare and argue. Again, Marshall stressed that there was no rational base for segregation, and Davis kept to his argument that the Court needed to stick to its precedents. But this time, the Court reached a decision - that “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”1

    The Brown decision was a huge landmark in the African-American civil rights movement. It gave African-Americans a sense of confidence and encouragement, and better opportunities to fight for equality. Before Brown, litigation and lobbying were the main efforts for integration, but after the 1954 decision there were more “direct strategies,” especially boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides.

1 Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench (p178)