Robbins: How Brown v Board of Education changed American law |

Robbins: How Brown v Board of Education changed American law

In the staid and steady world of law, this one was an earthquake.

Or at least it caused one.

It was 1954. 

Beneath the surface of America’s post-war “I Love Lucy” idyll, things were roiling.  Soon — within a decade — the times, they would be a changin’.   But in the Jim Crow South especially, time flowed like a lazy river. Eighty-nine years after Appomattox, black and white remained separate if, however euphemistically at least, “equal.”

But not just in the deep heart of the South.

In many if not most public schools across this nation that espoused in its founding instrument that “all men are created equal,” things were far from equal. Segregation was the rule; white went here, black there. In the halls of education (and elsewhere as well), the two were about as miscible as oil and water. 

The legal justification for this sorry state of affairs pointed back to the Supreme Court itself, to its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson which held that segregated public facilities were constitutional so long as the black and white facilities were equal to each other. 

Contented segregationists rested their heels on Plessy like a cherished Ottoman.  The court had spoken, they declaimed. The matter of segregated public education was as settled as the dust settled on the battlefields of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg. It was decided, done and interred in the graveyard of the past.


By the mid-twentieth century, civil rights groups had begun to erect the scaffolding of legal and political challenges to racial segregation.

In the early 1950s, NAACP lawyers brought class-action lawsuits on behalf of black schoolchildren and their families in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, seeking court orders to compel school districts to allow black students to attend white public schools. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., penned a decade later in his “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” “Justice [was poised to] roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Brown v. Board of Education

One of these class actions — Brown v. Board of Education — was filed against the Topeka, Kansas school board by Oliver Brown, a parent of one of the children denied access to Topeka’s white schools. Brown was the “lead” plaintiff on behalf of the class.

Brown claimed that Topeka’s racial segregation violated the United States Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause; the city’s black and white schools were not equal to each other and never could be.

The federal district court dismissed Brown’s claim, ruling that the segregated public schools were “substantially” equal enough to weather constitutional muster under the calcified precedent of Plessy.  

Brown disagreed and took his challenge to the Supreme Court.  The Court accepted the appeal and consolidated and reviewed all the school segregation actions together. The civil rights lion, Thurgood Marshall, who would, in 1967, be appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court, was chief counsel for the plaintiffs.

Ultimately, Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke for a unanimous Court.

Racial segregation of children in public schools, the court declared, did indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14 Amendment, which states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  

A shock to the system

The Court noted that when Congress drafted the amendment in the 1860s, it did not expressly require integration of the public schools. But neither did the amendment prohibit it. With that nod back to the congressional scriveners, the court noted that times had changed. 

Public education in the 20th century, it said, had become an essential component of a citizen’s public life, forming the basis of democratic citizenship, normal socialization, and professional training. In this modern context, any child denied a good education would be unlikely to succeed. Therefore, where a state has undertaken to provide universal education, such education becomes a right that must be afforded equally to both blacks and whites.

The Supremes rejected what the lower court had held — that black and white schools were “substantially equal” — “concluding, instead, that separating children on the basis of race created dangerous inferiority complexes that may adversely affect black children’s ability to learn. Even if the tangible facilities were equal between the black and white schools, racial segregation in schools was “inherently unequal” and thus always unconstitutional. At least in the context of public schools, Plessy v. Ferguson was overruled.

Eyes on the prize

In the “Brown II” case a decided year later, the court ordered the states to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” 

The equal protection ruling in Brown quickly spilled over into other areas of the law as well as into the political arena. Although Brown v. Board of Education was not the true spark of the modern civil rights movement, it was nonetheless a rubicon of justice that was at long last crossed in the struggle for true racial equality. 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Rev. King pronounced in a 1967 speech. Brown was an important bow in that long arc yielding towards equality.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address,

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