Background Overview & Summary

The United States Constitution guarantees its inhabitants liberty and equal opportunity. Historically, however, these fundamental rights have not always been provided as pledged. The American system of education is one such example.

From the earliest times in American history, the U.S. educational system mandated separate schools for children based solely on race. In many instances, the schools for African American children were substandard facilities with out-of-date textbooks and insufficient supplies. Court cases against segregated schools have been documented as far back as 1849. In 1861 a civil war was fought dividing the country along the lines of who should receive full rights and privileges under the U.S. Constitution. This conflict centered around the status of people of African descent who had been brought to America as slave labor. Those who would end the practice of slavery prevailed. Yet in spite of the end of the Civil War in 1865, the inclusion of African Americans as full citizens required amending the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the Civil War was followed by the enactment of the 13th amendment ratified in 1865 which abolished slavery; the 14th amendment ratified in 1868 which conferred citizenship on the formerly enslaved people of African descent and bestowed equal protection under the law; and the 15th amendment ratified in 1870 which affirmed that the right of U.S. citizens to vote cannot be denied or abridged on account of race.

In spite of the mandates outlined in the newly amended U.S. Constitution, freedom and equal rights were not readily bestowed upon African Americans. Throughout this period, education was withheld from people of African descent. In some states it was against the law for this segment of the population to learn to read and write. Tremulous disappointment and disillusionment stirred African American people to continue to challenge this system of segregation.

In the first documented school desegregation case, Roberts vs. City of Boston, 1849, the courts denied Benjamin Roberts and other African American parents the right to enroll their children in certain Boston public schools. However, in 1855 the Massachusetts legislature banned racial segregation. Then in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court declared it law that "separate" but "equal" facilities be provided for African Americans. This landmark case from Louisiana necessitated separate dining facilities, restrooms, transportation, accommodations and more, including public education.

Equal rights remained virtually unattainable. Across the country numerous cases were taken to court between 1849 and 1949. In the state of Kansas alone there were eleven school integration cases between 1881 and 1949. In response to these unsuccessful attempts to ensure equal opportunities for all children, African American community leaders and organizations across the country stepped up efforts to change the educational system.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1908, took a key role in the move toward equal educational opportunity. Members were involved at every level, providing legal counsel, funding, and more.

From the mid 1930's to the present the NAACP provided strategy and legal knowledge to use the courts as a proving ground to obtain full constitutional rights for African Americans. In the 1940's and 1950's local NAACP leaders spearheaded plans to end the doctrine of "Separate but Equal". Public schools became the means to that end. Their local efforts would ultimately change the course of history.

The NAACP legal team devised a formula for success. As they organized cases the first requirement was that they involve multiple plaintiffs. Along their road to the U.S. Supreme Court five cases were developed from the states of Delaware, Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. None of these cases succeeded in the District Courts and all were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At this juncture they were combined and became known jointly as Oliver L. Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The Supreme Court decided to combine the cases because each sought the same relief from segregated schools for African Americans. The circumstances of the plaintiffs left no question that ending segregation as a historic practice would be the only viable outcome.

Charles Hamilton Houston argued most of the early NAACP cases. He had been the Dean of Howard Law School, a prestigious university for African Americans. He was teacher and mentor for many civil rights lawyers of that time including Thurgood Marshall. Houston died in 1950 leaving Thurgood Marshall as lead strategist and council for the school integration cases. Marshall led these cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, one hundred and five years after the 1849 Roberts case, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that segregation was unconstitutional and violated the 14th Amendment.

The Brown decision initiated educational reform throughout the United States and was a catalyst in launching the modern Civil Rights Movement. Bringing about change in the years since Brown continues to prove difficult. But the Brown v. Board of Education victory brought Americans one step closer to true freedom and equal rights.