School Segregation in the USA: Mark Rathbone Puts the Famous 1954 School Segregation Case, Brown V. Board of Education, into Historical Context

Article excerpt

Any student of civil rights in the SA knows about Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case which outlawed racial segregation in schools. The United States Constitution put the Supreme Court at the head of the judicial branch of government: 'The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.' Its purpose is to determine whether particular laws passed by Congress or by State legislatures, or decisions made by the executive branch, are in accordance with the Constitution or not. Ever since the case Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Court has had the power to 'strike down' laws which it decides are unconstitutional.


Originating in 1950, the Brown case was brought by Oliver Brown, an African American from Topeka, Kansas, with the help of the Legal Defence Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Brown's seven-year-old daughter Linda had to walk through a railway marshalling yard and cross a busy main road to catch a bus to the all-black Monroe School on the other side of the city, instead of attending the whites-only Sumner School a few blocks from her home.

The famous 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson concerned separate compartments in railway carriages, but the Court's opinion left no doubt that the constitutionality of the provision of 'separate but equal' facilities for different races had more general application. It specifically described 'the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children' as 'a valid exercise of the legislative power' and led to the spread of 'Jim Crow' laws. Named after a stereotypical black music-hall character, these laws enforced racial segregation in all walks of life, including schools, across the southern United States. In practice, though, the facilities were separate but often far from equal, and segregation was used to keep African Americans in a subservient position.

Fifty-eight years later, however, the unanimous ruling of Chief Justice Earl Warren's Supreme Court declared segregation in education to be unconstitutional, overturning the Plessy judgement. But Brown (actually, one of five cases which the Supreme Court combined) was neither the first nor the last such case: the issue had first been ruled upon in an American court more than a century earlier and the Supreme Court is still hearing school segregation cases in the twenty-first century. This article looks at the history of segregation in education and asks how and why the issue has been, and continues to be, at the centre of the struggle for civil rights in the USA.

Roberts v. City of Boston

As early as 1849, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had heard Roberts v. City of Boston, in which African American parents, led by Sarah Roberts, challenged the legality of Boston's racially segregated schools. They lost, but they had placed the issue on the political agenda and six years later the state legislature ordered the integration of Massachusetts schools, the first state in the Union to do so. But over a century later, few states in the South had followed Massachusetts' example.

Furthermore, it was not only African Americans who suffered from segregation. Soon after the Plessy ruling, the San Francisco School Board established a segregated primary school for Chinese children, including those who were American-born, later also applying the segregation policy to Japanese children, reflecting a tendency to lump together all those of Asian origin. 'Our children,' declared the School Board in 1905, 'should not be placed in any position where their youthful impressions may be affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.'

This statement reveals the reality behind the 'separate, but equal' veneer: 'our children' meant white children, and they were to be protected, as from a plague, from contact with other races: much the same rationale applied whether, as in this case, they were Asian Americans or, more numerously, African Americans. …