History Timeline 1950's

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U.S. Timeline - The 1950s

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1954

    May 17, 1954 - Racial segregation in public schools is declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Board of Education. The ruling of the court stated that racial segregation violated the 14th Amendment's clause that guaranteed equal protection. The Monroe School in Topeka, Kansas had segregated Linda Brown in its classes.


    Brown versus Board of Education


    In many ways, the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education was the most important ruling in the 20th century. It would lead to desegregation, not only in education, but in hiring, to Civil Rights Acts of the 1960's and eventual, though still imperfect, integration into full society of all races. Yes, we still know that's imperfect, and that as long as it took past the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln in September of 1862 to get to the point of Brown v, we should strive for quicker solution to the remainder. But, in 1954, the illusion that race relations had improved for the majority of African Americans was just that. Yes, the armed forces were integrated and in many of the northern states, tacit integration was slowly making its way. But in the south, segregation was still the unfortunate norm.

    For sixty years, the ruling in Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 had ruled the land. Separate but equal was accepted precedent. While sixteen northern states had already prohibited the practice in education, seventeen southern states still aherered to Plessy, providing a varying state of equality in schooling. Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkanas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida were at odds with the movement in Civil Rights toward equality. It was optional in four states; Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Kansas. It was in one of the optional states, Kansas, that the practice would get the challenge that made its way to the Supreme Court.

    In 1951, a group of parents brought a class action suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, who maintained separate elementary schools for black and white students under an 1879 Kansas law. The NAACP in Topeka urged Oliver Brown, a parent, to challenge the law, which he and other parents did. The District Court denied the ruling, allowing the Board of Education in Topeka to continue their practice, because in Topeka, the facilities were equal. They sided with Plessy vs Ferguson, while acknowleding that in most cases, education for black students was not equal.

    By the time the case was challenged to the higher court, Brown v Board of Education had been joined by four other cases from separate states; South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer for the NAACP and later Supreme Court Justice, argued the case for the plaintiffs during the 1953 case. During the spring session, the court could not decide and asked to rehear the case in the fall, focusing on whether the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment had been abridged. Justices who initially supported the desegregation opinion, in the majority, wanted to have a unanimous opinion and spent much time convincing the other justices toward that end. Some were against ruling in favor due to trying to restrain judicial activism. In the end, a unanimous decision to overturn Plessy and rule in favor of Brown occurred.


    Full Text, Supreme Court Ruling, Brown versus Board of Education


    Transcript of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (USSC+). Argued December 9, 1952. Reargued December 8, 1953. Decided May 17, 1954.

    APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS*

    Syllabus

    Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment -- even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors of white and Negro schools may be equal.

    (a) The history of the Fourteenth Amendment is inconclusive as to its intended effect on public education.

    (b) The question presented in these cases must be determined not on the basis of conditions existing when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but in the light of the full development of public education and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.

    (c) Where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

    (d) Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal.

    (e) The "separate but equal" doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, has no place in the field of public education.

    (f) The cases are restored to the docket for further argument on specified questions relating to the forms of the decrees.

    Opinion

    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, 163 U.S. 537. Under that doctrine, equality of treatment is accorded when the races are provided substantially equal facilities, even though these facilities be separate. In the Delaware case, the Supreme Court of Delaware adhered to that doctrine, but ordered that the plaintiffs be admitted to the white schools because of their superiority to the Negro schools.

    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, 175 U.S. 528, and Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78, 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, 305 U.S. 337; Sipuel v. Oklahoma, 332 U.S. 631; Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637. In none of these cases was it necessary to reexamine 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. 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.

    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.

    * Together with No. 2, Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al., on appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina, argued December 9-10, 1952, reargued December 7-8, 1953; No. 4, Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al. , on appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, argued December 10, 1952, reargued December 7-8, 1953, and No. 10, Gebhart et al. v. Belton et al., on certiorari to the Supreme Court of Delaware, argued December 11, 1952, reargued December 9, 1953.

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    Subsequent Civil Rights Rulings and Practical Application of the Law


    It would take one more year after the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education for the Supreme Court to hear arguments on how the initial ruling would take practical effect. On May 31, 1955, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren read the ruling of Brown II. That deicision had been unanimous as well. All states must end segregation practices with "all deliberate speed." For Topeka, Kansas, they had not waited for Brown II to be issued. By August 1953, two elementary schools had been integrated. Full integration in Topeka elementary schools was completed by 1956.

    Not all states and school districts responded as favorably. At Little Rock Central High School in 1957, the state's governor, Orval Faubus, sent the state national guard to block black students from entering; President Eisenhower responded with the 101st Airborne, allowing them to enter. Some cities, such as Greensboro, North Carolina, took until 1971 to full integrate.

    Today you can visit several National Park Service sites that tell the story of Brown versus the Board of Education and its subsequent application. In Topeka, Kansas, the Brown v Education National Historic Site includes exhibits on Race and the American Creed, the court case, and Education and Justice. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site has tours and exhibits on the 1957 action of the federal government to force enforcement of Brown v Education.

    Image above: Photo of school integration at the Barnard School in Washington, D.C., May 27, 1955, Thomas J. O'Hallaran, U.S. News and World Report Magazine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress. Image below: Supreme Court members, December 14, 1953. Back row, Tom Clark, Robert H. Jackson, Harold Burton, Sherman Minton. Front row, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Stanley Reed, William O. Douglas, 1953, United Press International. Courtesy Library of Congress. Source Info: Ourdocuments.gov; National Park Service; Wikipedia Commons.

    U.S. Supreme Court Member 1953





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