Brown v. Board of Education Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Decades Primary Sources: 1950-1959)

George Hayes (left), standing with Thurgood Marshall (center), and James M. Nabrit (right) after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION George Hayes (left), standing with Thurgood Marshall (center), and James M. Nabrit (right) after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION

Supreme Court decision

By: Earl Warren

Date: May 17, 1954

Source: Warren, Earl. Brown v. Board of Education. 347 U.S. 483 (1954) Available online at ; website home page: (accessed March 4, 2003).

About the Author: Earl Warren (1891–1974) received his bachelor's degree from the University of California in 1912 and his law degree there two years later. After three years in private practice, he joined the army in 1917, then began a career in government as deputy city attorney for Oakland. From 1945 to 1953, he was governor of California. He became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, a position he held until 1969. The Warren Court is synonymous with expansion of civil rights and civil liberties.


Slavery legally ended in the United States with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, but racial discrimination did not end with slavery. During the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877), the North took steps to help the former slaves and to rebuild the South. The Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing due process and equal protection to all citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment, providing that the right to vote would not be denied on the basis of the color of one's skin, were passed during that era. But the North soon tired of Reconstruction, and white domination quickly returned to Southern institutions. Jim Crow laws, beginning in the 1880s, segregated all aspects of Southern life—theaters, railroad cars, schools, even public restrooms. The Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to Jim Crow in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which held that separate facilities for African Americans and whites were constitutional as long as the facilities were equal. With whites holding political power in the South, the system never even approximated equality. Schools for African Americans were particularly bad. Most states did not have colleges for African Americans, and they provided few high schools.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged segregation throughout the South, especially targeting education. Their first victory in education came in 1938 in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, when the Supreme Court ruled against the state of Missouri's practice of providing scholarships for its eligible African American students to go to law school in other states rather than providing opportunities for African Americans to go to law school in Missouri. The Court held that law schools for African Americans could be separate, but they had to exist. Most states responded to this by providing token law schools for African Americans in their states. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950) the Court held that if separate schools existed, they had to be equal in every way, including the intangibles.

Linda Brown was an African American elementary school student living in Topeka, Kansas, in the early 1950s. Since she had a long way to travel to get to the all-African American elementary school in her district, she applied to the Board of Education of Topeka to gain admission to an all-white school closer to home. She was denied admission. Kansas state law at the time allowed school districts to maintain separate facilities for African American and white students, and Topeka had elected to do so at the elementary level. Linda Brown's parents took the Board of Education to court with NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall handling the case. The federal court found that Linda Brown's rights had not been violated, referring to the Plessy doctrine of "separate but equal." The case then went to the Supreme Court, which combined Brown with cases from several other states that raised the same issue: that segregated schools were never equal and constituted a violation of equal protection under the laws provided in the Fourteenth Amendment.


The Supreme Court took an historic step in 1954, declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Segregation in education under any circumstance was deemed unconstitutional. The Court caused an uproar with this ruling. The nationwide reaction to the Court's finding was extremely powerful, whether favorable or not. The Chicago Defender of May 18, 1954, proclaimed: "Neither the atom bomb nor the hydrogen bomb will ever be as meaningful to our democracy as the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that racial segregation violates the spirit and letter of our Constitution." Many in the South, which had the largest share of the nation's public schools that were segregated by legal mandate, reacted to the decision in horror and anger. On the same day, the Chicago press and many others throughout the nation lauded the Brown decision. The Jackson, Mississippi, Daily News grimly predicted: "Human blood may stain Southern soil in many places because of this decision but the dark red stains of that blood will be on the marble steps of the United States Supreme Court building." A congressional delegation of mostly Southern congressmen jointly announced the signing of the Southern Manifesto, which called for "massive resistance" against the Brown decision.

In 1955, the Supreme Court issued another Brown decision concerning the schedule and means of racially integrating the nation's schools. Compliance with the Court's ruling was very slow. In 1957, nine African American students were blocked from entering Little Rock High School until President Dwight D. Eisenhower (served 1953–1961) very reluctantly ordered the Arkansas National Guard to escort the students into the school. Ten years after Brown, less than 2 percent of Southern African American students attended integrated schools. The South was not the only reluctant participant in the move to desegregate. As late as 1974, a federal court ruled that the Boston School Committee had deliberately maintained racial segregation in the city's public schools and ordered the city to initiate busing programs to bring children to schools outside their own neighborhoods. Civil rights bills passed during President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration (1963–1969) provided much-needed force behind integrating the nation's schools, but racial segregation remains a reality in many parts of the nation today.

Primary Source: Brown v. Board of Education [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Chief Justice Earl Warren describes the Court's efforts to study the history and facts of segregation in education and the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court had been ruling for several decades without directly considering the constitutionality of segregated education as a whole. With several such cases before the Court, it takes this challenge, ruling directly that segregated schools are "inherently unequal" and overruling the concept of separation laid out in Plessy as it applies to education.

Mr. Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. They are premised on different facts and different local conditions, but a common legal question justifies their consideration together in this consolidated opinion.

In each of the cases, minors of the Negro race, through their legal representatives, seek the aid of the courts in obtaining admission to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis. In each instance, they had been denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to race. This segregation was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. In each of the cases other than the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court denied relief to the plaintiffs on the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine announced by this Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.…

The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are not "equal" and cannot be made "equal," and that hence they are deprived of the equal protection of the laws. Because of the obvious importance of the question presented, the Court took jurisdiction. Argument was heard in the 1952 Term, and reargument was heard this Term on certain questions propounded by the Court.

Reargument was largely devoted to the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It covered exhaustively consideration of the Amendment in Congress, ratification by the states, then existing practices in racial segregation, and the views of proponents and opponents of the Amendment. This discussion and our own investigation convince us that, although these sources cast some light, it is not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced. At best, they are inconclusive. The most avid proponents of the post-War Amendments undoubtedly intended them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Their opponents,

just as certainly, were antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wished them to have the most limited effect. What others in Congress and the state legislatures had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

An additional reason for the inconclusive nature of the Amendment's history, with respect to segregated schools, is the status of public education at that time. In the South, the movement toward free common schools, supported by general taxation, had not yet taken hold. Education of white children was largely in the hands of private groups. Education of Negroes was almost nonexistent, and practically all of the race were illiterate. In fact, any education of Negroes was forbidden by law in some states. Today, in contrast, many Negroes have achieved outstanding success in the arts and sciences as well as in the business and professional world. It is true that public school education at the time of the Amendment had advanced further in the North, but the effect of the Amendment on Northern States was generally ignored in the congressional debates. Even in the North, the conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states; and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on public education.

In the first cases in this Court construing the Fourteenth Amendment, decided shortly after its adoption, the Court interpreted it as proscribing all state-imposed discriminations against the Negro race. The doctrine of "separate but equal" did not make its appearance in this Court until 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, supra, involving not education but transportation. American courts have since labored with the doctrine for over half a century. In this Court, there have been six cases involving the "separate but equal" doctrine in the field of public education. In Cumming v. County Board of Education … and Gong Lum v. Rice … the validity of the doctrine itself was not challenged. In more recent cases, all on the graduate school level, inequality was found in that specific benefits enjoyed by white students were denied to Negro students of the same educational qualifications. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada …; Sipuel v. Oklahoma …; Sweatt v. Painter …; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents.… In none of these cases was it necessary to re-examine the doctrine to grant relief to the Negro plaintiff. And in Sweatt v. Painter, supra, the Court expressly reserved decision on the question whether Plessy v. Ferguson should be held inapplicable to public education.

In the instant cases, that question is directly presented. Here, unlike Sweatt v. Painter, there are findings below that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other "tangible" factors. [In the Kansas case, the court below found substantial equality as to all such factors. In the South Carolina case, the court below found that the defendants were proceeding "promptly and in good faith to comply with the court's decree." In the Virginia case, the court below noted that the equalization program was already "afoot and progressing"; since then, we have been advised, in the Virginia Attorney General's brief on reargument, that the program has now been completed. In the Delaware case, the court below similarly noted that the state's equalization program was well under way.] Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

In Sweatt v. Painter, supra, in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities, this Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, supra, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again resorted to intangible considerations: "… his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

[A similar finding was made in the Delaware case: "I conclude from the testimony that in our Delaware society, State-imposed segregation in education itself results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated."]

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Because these are class actions, because of the wide applicability of this decision, and because of the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases presents problems of considerable complexity. On reargument, the consideration of appropriate relief was necessarily subordinated to the primary question—the constitutionality of segregation in public education. We have now announced that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws. In order that we may have the full assistance of the parties in formulating decrees, the cases will be restored to the docket, and the parties are requested to present further argument on Questions 4 and 5 previously propounded by the Court for the reargument this Term. The Attorney General of the United States is again invited to participate. The Attorneys General of the states requiring or permitting segregation in public education will also be permitted to appear as amici curiae upon request to do so by September 15, 1954, and submission of briefs by October 1, 1954.

It is so ordered.

Further Resources


Balkin, J.M., and Bruce A. Ackerman. What "Brown v. Board of Education" Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Landmark Civil Rights Decision. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Cray, Ed. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Horwitz, Morton J. The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice: A Critical Issue. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of "Brown v. Board of Education" and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Patterson, James T. "Brown v. Board of Education": A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wilson, Paul E. A Time to Lose: Representing Kansas in "Brown v. Board of Education." Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.


" Brown v. Board of Education: Immediate Reaction to Decision." Landmark Cases, Supreme Court. Available online at; website home page: (accessed March 4, 2003).

" Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site." National Park Service. Available online at (accessed March 5, 2003).