There are so many key cases from which to choose. However, one of the most significant court cases, both in terms of its perpetual relevance and its impact in its time, is the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Prior to 1954, the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson established the principle of "separate but equal" when it came to black people's ability to access public services, including schools. This doctrine solidified Jim Crow, or legal (de jure) segregation throughout the American South.
Though there had been prior challenges in the Supreme Court regarding segregation in public facilities, particularly rail and bus lines, cases which had been successful, civil rights activists and attorneys thought that segregated schools required more urgent attention.
It is important to remember that, contrary to legal language, separate did not mean equal in practice. Public facilities for blacks were of significantly lower quality than those offered to whites. Public schools for blacks were in decidedly worse condition than those available to whites. A family in Topeka, with the help of Thurgood Marshall, who argued their case in the Warren Court, challenged the constitutionality of segregation.
Linda Brown was eight years old when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked her father, Oliver Brown, to enroll his daughter at a predominately white school, Sumner Elementary School in Topeka. Brown, along with thirteen other black families, were organized by the NAACP to help challenge segregation in Kansas.
It is important to note that Kansas, though a very conservative state, was not as virulently racist as the South. The Brown family lived in a racially-mixed neighborhood and segregation was not as strictly enforced there as in the South. However, Linda was required to walk across railroad tracks and take a bus to school, despite the proximity of Sumner Elementary, due to the segregation of elementary schools in Topeka. Clearly, Marshall and others saw an opportunity in Topeka, due to the relative laxity of segregation laws in Kansas.
The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled in favor of the Browns, determining that segregated elementary schools in Topeka violated the Fourteenth Amendment which ensured equal protection under the law. However, it was not until a 1955 follow-up decision for Brown v. Board that the ruling was actually enforced. The 1955 decision set a time-table and requirements for schools in segregated states to integrate.
History shows us that the South was very resistant to these efforts. Little Rock, Arkansas, New Orleans, and Jackson, Mississippi were all sites of fierce and violent opposition to efforts toward integration.
Despite the illegality of segregation (de jure), segregation remains a practice (de facto). Because of stark income inequality, particularly when comparing black and white families, black children (and many Latino children too) often do not have access to school facilities that are equal to those for white children. States supplement federal funding for education with property taxes. If one lives in a district in which few people own property or live in barely adequate housing, the school system will reflect that.