The Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (347 U.S. 483 ; 349 U.S. 294 ) was actually four cases considered under one rubric, with a companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe (1954). The central question considered was whether legally imposed racial segregation in public primary and secondary education violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while Bolling took up the segregation issue for the District of Columbia and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court had upheld segregation, in a case involving intrastate railway transportation, under the separate but equal doctrine, and most court cases upheld this doctrine until the late 1930s. Then the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began a successful assault on educational segregation, working downward from graduate and professional higher education in a series of cases including Missouri ex rel., Gaines v. Canada (1938), McLaurin v. Board of Regents, and Sweatt v. Painter (1950).
By 1952, the Supreme Court had heard arguments in Brown but had set the cases for reargument. In the meantime, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as chief justice. Under Warren's stewardship, the Court began to wrestle with the potential political impact of Brown as well as its legal justification. Segregation had become a way of life in the South, and violent resistance to any order for desegregation was greatly feared.
The chief justice worked hard behind the scenes to insure unanimity in the court decision, with Justice Stanley F. Reid finally agreeing not to oppose the decision and Justice Robert H. Jackson abandoning plans for a concurring opinion. Warren wrote the decision in a bland style, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and offering no generalized statements about the fate of other aspects of Jim Crow institutions. The decision was based heavily upon the effects on black children of segregated education and resorted to various sociological and psychological studies as evidence.
The following year the Court took up the question of what was to be done about unconstitutionally segregated public schools: were they to be phased out, or must they be ended at once? The Court employed the ambiguous phrase “… with all deliberate speed …,” leading to much procrastination and necessitating innumerable future suits. In the aftermath of Brown, the Court went on in a long series of “per curiam” decisions to eradicate most vestiges of Jim Crow. Loving v. Virginia (1967), which struck down the laws against interracial marriage, was perhaps the last of the direct legal descendants of Brown, but later forced-busing cases, such as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), and Columbus Board of Education v. Penick (1979), relied on the Brown precedent. In a very real sense, Brown lent enormous moral support to nonjudicial aspects of the civil rights movement as well, such as sit-ins and boycotts, and to legislative remedies for discrimination such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Intellectual opposition to Brown did not always originate with prosegregationists. Bitter opponents of segregation such as constitutional scholars Raoul Berger and Alexander Bickel held that the noble outcome of Brown should have instead been achieved by constitutional amendment or congressional legislation. Other critics supported the outcome of Brown but disputed its rationale as too much based on social science and not grounded firmly enough in legal theory, holding that the Court might have legitimately reached the same conclusion by more cogent legal analysis.
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