Supreme Court Rules against Segregated Public Schools
It was the epitome of the “landmark” ruling—a U.S. Supreme Court decision so profound that it forever changed life in America. On May 17, 1954, the Court announced its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This unanimous Supreme Court ruling overturned the established “separate but equal” doctrine, opening up the path to integration and giving the Civil Rights Movement a solid legal foundation.
On that May 17 day when Chief Justice Warren read the decision, the Court broke with its own tradition. Usually, reporters in the courtroom were handed printed copies of the decision just prior to its public reading. On that day, however, no printed copies were distributed, and it took a while before the Court’s decision was finally known. Everyone had to wait long, anxious moments while Warren’s reading began with an analysis of the history of the “separate but equal” doctrine, established by the Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896.
After what must have seemed an interminable wait, the attentive audience heard Warren say these words: “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.”
It may have taken a while to finally learn the Court’s decision—but it did not take anyone long to realize the historic implications of the ruling. At that time, 17 states had laws requiring segregated public schools, and another 4 permitted it. All 21 of those public school systems would now have to be changed.
The historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling was reported in this copyrighted article, published by the Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) with a huge headline on the front page of its May 17, 1954, issue:
High Court Rules against Segregation in Schools
Separation by Races Prohibited
By Associated Press.
Washington, May 17.—The Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously today that segregation of Negro and white students in public schools is unconstitutional. But it said it will hear further arguments in the fall on how and when to end the practice.
Thus, it will be many months, or even longer, before the historic ruling actually wipes out the separate schools now in existence in many states.
Chief Justice Warren read the court’s opinion, which declared:
“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 (Negro parents) and others similarly situated for whom the action has been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
“This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.”
Slaves Aided by Amendment
The 14th Amendment was adopted after the Civil War, primarily for the benefit of slaves freed by President Lincoln. It says no state may deny any person due process and equal protection of the law, nor abridge their privileges or immunities.
The cases decided today involved South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
But lawyers said a ruling against segregation would affect a total of 17 states which have laws requiring separation of the races in schools, plus three [actually, four—ed.] other states having laws which permit—but do not require—segregation.
The court was told the 17 states and the District of Columbia have 70 per cent of the nation’s Negro population, or 10,522,495 Negroes out of 15,042,692 total. States with permissive segregation have an additional 1 per cent.
States Listed for Court
States whose laws require segregation were listed for the court as Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
States with permissive segregation were listed as New Mexico, Wyoming and Kansas [and Arizona—ed.].
In an apparent effort to preclude any advance leak of today’s historic ruling, the court took the action—unprecedented in recent years—of withholding printed copies of the decision until it had been read in full from the bench.
Ordinarily, pages distribute the printed opinions to reporters in the courtroom just before the justice who wrote the majority view begins to read. Thus, several minutes went by today before it could be determined how the court had decided the cases.
After reviewing a long line of decisions bearing on the “separate but equal” doctrine, Chief Justice Warren wrote:
“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.”
Chief Justice Warren said the court’s decision “cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved.” He added:
“We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.”
Clock Can’t Be Turned Back
In approaching the problem, Chief Justice Warren said, “We cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the (14th) Amendment was adopted or even to 1896, when Plessy vs. Ferguson was written. (Plessy vs. Ferguson was the case which established the “separate but equal” doctrine.)
“We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its place in American life throughout the nation.
“Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs (Negroes) 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…
Education for All
“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.”
It was at this point in the opinion that Chief Justice Warren said the court believes segregation denies Negro children equal education opportunities.
Chief Justice Warren said the decision announced in the case of the states also would apply to the District of Columbia, but under a different section of the Constitution.
“We hold,” the chief justice said, “that racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.”
The Fifth Amendment applies to the federal government, and Congress makes the laws for this federal district.
In the District of Columbia case, Chief Justice Warren said:
“Segregation in public education is not reasonably related to any proper governmental objective, and thus it imposes on Negro children of the district a burden that constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty in violation of the due-process clause.”
Today’s historic decision overturned the segregation doctrine established by the Supreme Court 57 years ago.
And, if advance threats are carried out, today’s ruling will lead eventually to the abolition of public school systems as they exist in South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.
Decrees to Be Delayed
Chief Justice Warren said that because of the complex questions involved, the formulation of Supreme Court decrees backing up the ruling will be delayed.
The chief justice went on to say that in order to have full assistance of all the parties concerned, the cases will be restored to the court’s docket and that new arguments will be heard on two questions asked by the tribunal before it heard its second argument of the issues last December.
One of these questions involved the time issue, that is, when to order schools in states which now require segregation to admit Negro children along with white children.
The other question raised the issue of whether the court should appoint a special master to recommend specific terms for its decrees, or whether the cases should be sent back to lower Federal Courts to see that segregation practices are ended.
Chief Justice Warren said that attorneys-general of the states involved may appear before the court to argue on the form of the decrees to be issued. The states were told to put in applications for such appearances by September 15 and to submit any briefs by October 1. The court’s new term begins October 4.
The decision does not apply to private schools. Nor, on its face, does it affect the “separate but equal” doctrine as applied to travel on railroads and other public conveyances solely within states which have such laws.
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