On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation (separation of people according to race) in public schools is unconstitutional (violates laws stated in the U.S. Constitution). This decision overturned the long-standing "separate but equal" doctrine laid down in 1896 by the case of Plessy v. Fergusson, which had encouraged segregation in certain areas of the country. For example, in 1908 the Supreme Court ruled in Berea College v. Kentucky that a state could forbid a private or public college from admitting both whites and blacks at the same time. This concept was extended into laws that influenced all aspects of public life. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling started a tumultuous era of integration (merging of blacks with whites) and equal access for all races. It was the first time the Court determined segregation in schools to be "inherently unequal" and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection of the law to both black and white students.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974) was instrumental in ordering states to proceed "with all deliberate speed" to desegregate (eliminate segregation in) educational facilities. This long and painful process was followed by the national struggle for racial equality known as the Civil Rights movement. The most famous school integration incident occurred in 1957 when the governor of Arkansas called in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration in Little Rock. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) responded by sending in federal troops to enforce the Court's ruling. The Little Rock schools opened on an integrated basis but tensions remained high for years. Although the ruling did not immediately eliminate the long-standing racial divide, it was a crucial step toward equal access in education.
Further Information: Brown v. the Board of Education. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/Theater/9022/brownvboard2.html, October 23, 2000; Nieman, D. G. Promises to Keep: African-Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991; Orfield, Gary. Public School Desegregation in the United States, 1968–80. Washington, D.C.: Joint Center for Political Studies, 1983.