Brown vs. Board of Education 

US #3937j from the More Perfect Union sheet.

On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools as a result of the case of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Decades earlier, a precedent had been set in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. That case ruled that as long as the separate facilities for separate races were equal, they didn’t violate the 14th Amendment of equal protection.

US #4201 was issued for the 60th anniversary of Mendez vs. Westminster.

In spite of this ruling, schools were far from equal, and some people fought the segregation of schools. In 1945, Gonzalo Mendez and his family lived in Westminster, California, which had segregated schools. There was a two-room shack for Mexicans and a well-built school with a lawn and other amenities for whites-only. Determined that his children should have a good education, Mendez sued the school system in the case of Mendez vs. Westminster. He won the case and forced them to desegregate. The landmark case set the precedent for Brown vs. Board of Education.

US #3937j – Fleetwood First Day Cover.

In Topeka, Kansas, seven-year-old Linda Brown had to walk one mile to get to her black elementary school; a white school was only seven blocks away. Mr. Brown tried unsuccessfully to enroll his daughter in the white school. He appealed for help to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In June 1951, the Kansas US District Court heard Brown’s case against the Topeka school board. The NAACP argued that segregated schools sent a message to black children that they were inferior to whites; therefore, the schools were not equal. However, the District Court followed the precedent of Plessy vs. Ferguson, and ruled against Brown.

US #3746 from the Black Heritage Series.

The NAACP appealed to the US Supreme Court, with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall presenting the case. The court first heard the case in the spring of 1953, but was unable to reach a decision, and requested to hear it again that fall. The case was reargued on December 8, 1953, and the justices deliberated.

US #2184 from the Great Americans series.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its decision, striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine for public education and requiring the desegregation of schools across America. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Court, saying “in the field of public opinion, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separated educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision sparked a movement to desegregate all public facilities across the American South.

Opposition to Brown was fierce. Many white southern Congress members signed the “Southern Manifesto,” condemning the case and declaring the states had the right to ignore it. To avoid desegregation, some officials closed their local public schools.

US #4422a – Felix Frankfurter was among the justices ruling in this case.

Three years after the court’s decision, not one southern child attended a desegregated school. That changed in September 1957, when Little Rock’s Central High School was forced to allow nine black students to attend classes there. Governor Orval Faubus prevented their admission for over three weeks. After much tension and unrest, the students were escorted into the school by National Guard units on September 25.

US #3187f from the Celebrate the Century: 1960s sheet.

Desegregating schools would be a slow process, but the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a series of 1968 Supreme Court decisions helped to speed up the pace.   By the mid-1970s, school desegregation was achieved on a nationwide scale.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Had a friend in Little Rock that attended the high school during those turbulent times. Lived the history!

  2. The last sentence, “…school desegregation was achieved on a nationwide basis,” is a little misleading. Many black and Mexican-American children attend schools nearly all black or all Mexican-American due to neighborhoods, gerrymandering of school districts, the proliferation of private schools, and other factors. True desegregation is a healthy but hard to achieve.

  3. In 1973 I was a neonatology fellow at Dallas Parkland Hospital and they had this wonderful Perinatology conferences, like weekly. I attended several of them during my month rotation, and I was surrounded by all white boys ( I felt like a fly in a rice milk bow ). One of the professors was jewish ( he told me he couldn’t join the golf club ) and the other one was a Centro-American ultrasound expert. I was the darker, but good looking, slim, smart and I didn’t hesitate to ask questions or participate in the discussions like any American would do, as I was thought by my American teachers in my initial 6 years at the states at different cities. My daughter, 47 years old now, applied to medical School at Dallas and was accepted 22 years ago and told me: Dad, at the interview they are all white boys, no minorities and no girls. I have never felt discriminated in USA or none of 5 my kids, now in their 50’s, the younger 29 and 25, they all had the opportunities as needed it and access to the best education available possibly, economically accessible and have no complains. God bless America and hopefully things are better, diversified in Dallas now days.

  4. Amen to the advancement of equality for all!! It’s hard to achieve that which is good for all but America should be this way.

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