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In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public schools should be racially integrated, and overturned the separate but equal doctrine established in Plessy v Ferguson decades before. This was made possible by a concerted legal effort spearheaded by the NAACP. Beginning in the 1930s, the NAACP's legal defense fund (led by Thurgood Marshall at the time of the Brown Decision) pursued a strategy of bringing cases to court that would expand the civil rights of Black Americans. This multi-decade effort culminated in the Brown decision, with many other victories along the way.

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VIDEO SOURCES

Rachel Devlin, A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America's Schools. New York: Basic Books, 2018.
Justin Driver, The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind. New York: Pantheon Books, 2018.
Charles Ogletree, Jr. All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown V. Board of Education. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.
James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thurgood-Marshall
https://www.law.virginia.edu/static/uvalawyer/html/alumni/uvalawyer/f04/klarman.htm
Klarman, Michael J. "How Brown Changed Race Relations: The Backlash Thesis." The Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (1994): 81-118. Accessed July 29, 2021. doi:10.2307/2080994.
https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/26/597154953/linda-brown-who-was-at-center-of-brown-v-board-of-education-dies
https://www.nps.gov/people/oliver-brown.htm


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Hi.  I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History. 

And today we are going back to the courtroom!  If you've been watching this series, it's probably starting to feel like a pretty familiar place because a lot of history has played out here.  While many Black Americans were kept from voting because of domestic terrorism and Jim Crow laws, the courtroom became a place where unfair practices could be challenged.   Today we're going to talk about one of the most important cases in US history: the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.  Let's start the show! [intro] Because Black people often didn't have representation in their state or congressional bodies, it sometimes made changing laws through legislation difficult.  But the courts were one avenue through which Black Americans were able to fight for their citizenship rights, and feel like they had a chance.  When the Constitution was amended to include the Reconstruction Amendments (aka the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) Black Americans were formally made citizens of the United States.  And citizenship is important because it affirms that you have access to rights and resources in your country.  But many white Americans weren't okay with Black Americans becoming citizens.  They benefited from Black Americans not having the same protections and resources that they did.  And so White Americans created Jim Crow laws that implemented segregation and hindered Black Americans' right to vote.   We'll talk more about the Civil Rights Movement and the fight to vote in a few more episodes, but segregation is an important place to start.  Segregation wasn't just morally bad; but also discreetly - or maybe not so discreetly - assured that Black Americans wouldn't be able to access all of the practical and material benefits of their citizenship.


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And this sets the stage for  Brown v. Board of Education. Access to public school education was definitely one of those citizenship rights that Black Americans were entitled to. But White Americans used Jim Crow Laws, and the Plessy v.

Ferguson decision, which stated that “separate but equal” schools made segregation okay to justify keeping the races separate. But the reality was that separate was rarely equal. Many schools for Black students were severely underfunded, had outdated materials, and were just generally dilapidated.

Schools for White students on the other hand often had drastically better resources. The injustice was clear. And Black Americans started organizing to get their Black students the education and resources that they deserved.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had their eyes on the issue of school segregation way back in the 1930s, when they commissioned the Margold Report. The report ran over 200 pages, and half of them dealt directly with segregation in schools. During that time, the NAACP had some small victories for equal education in  public colleges and universities, but when it came to elementary and secondary schools, segregationists just wouldn’t budge.

But Brown v. Board of Education happened in the 1950s, so why are we talking about the 1930s? Well, things in the courts can take a long time and the NAACP was playing the long game.

The execution of their plan took about 20 years - starting with the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston, a Harvard graduate and the Director of the NAACP’s legal strategy, and ending with the legal prowess of his mentee Thurgood Marshall. In 1952, the NAACP brought five different cases on school segregation from different states: South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.


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The NAACP’s lawyers presented legal arguments on how unconstitutional segregation, and “separate but equal” were. These five cases were combined into Brown v Board of Education and went  to the Supreme Court in 1953. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Oliver Brown was an assistant pastor who lived in an integrated neighborhood in Topeka, Kansas.

In September of 1950, Oliver Brown went to his local elementary school, The Sumner School, and tried to enroll his daughter, Linda. The principal said that she would not be allowed to attend because she was Black and the school did not accept Black students. The principal also said that state laws allowed for segregation so basically, sorry - not sorry.

Since Linda couldn’t go to her local school, which was only a few blocks away from her home, she had to attend the all-Black school but it involved a two hour commute via bus and car. This led to a very sleepy Linda Brown and a very upset Oliver Brown. Different historians will tell you different things about what happened next.

Some say that Brown went to the NAACP and became part of the lawsuit, others say that the entire act of going to the local school in the first place was at the NAACP’s urging. Either way, while there were eventually 12 other plaintiffs as part of the NAACP’s case, Oliver Brown, on behalf of his daughter, became its lead plaintiff. And even though we associate the Brown name with desegregation, Linda Brown was never actually able to attend the Sumner School.

Because by the time the ruling was handed down, she was in Junior High. Thanks Thought Bubble. Thurgood Marshall was the chief attorney for the plaintiffs.

Marshall was a victim of, but also a victor over, segregated education himself. After graduating with honors from Lincoln University,


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he was unable to attend the University of Maryland Law School because he wasn’t white. Undeterred, he attended Howard University School of Law instead - which had become the first Black law school in the nation in 1869. He graduated first in his class. He later went on to become the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

And ultimately, he would be appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson as the first Black American Supreme Court Justice. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, back to Marshall’s NAACP days.

Marshall and his team argued before the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional and that “separate but equal” had to go. And the Court finally agreed with them. And on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously held that segregated public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause.

In his decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren said, quote: “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 was a huge victory for Black Americans.

But enforcing the ruling was a different story. After Brown v. Board overturned “separate but equal” in schools, riots and violence erupted all over the country.

White protesters terrorized Black communities throughout the south - especially in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. In Texas and Florida, White vigilante groups burned crosses to terrorize Black residents.


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Some scholars have argued that even though a budding Civil Rights Movement propelled Brown v. Board to victory, the backlash against the case accelerated the Civil Rights movement as Black Americans were increasingly harassed and abused by angry segregationists. Some school districts even decided to close all of their schools, rather than allowing Black children to integrate them. For example, in 1959 the Prince Edward County school system in Virginia completely shut down so that white students didn’t have to go to school with Black students.

Many white parents sent their children to segregated private schools, and Black children either had to go to school in another county, which was just unfeasible for so many families, or not go to school at all. And it wasn’t until 1964, and another Supreme Court case, Griffin v County School Board of Prince Edward County, that the Prince Edward County schools reopened. Some Black children missed out on five years of their education - five years!

So while it would be easy to look at Brown v Board as an example of America changing for the better, and the Supreme Court doing what’s right simply because it was right, it’s also important to look at the broader context that animated that decision. At this time, tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were at their peak, and the Cold War was an omnipresent force in both American and global politics. Many top officials in the US government, including justices on the Supreme Court, were acutely cognizant of how segregation, and images of violence and terror enacted against Black people,   harmed the United States’ reputation, and their ability to say that American democracy was the greatest in the world.

Chief Justice Earl Warren said in a 1954 speech to the American Bar Association that "Our American system like all others


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is on trial both at home and abroad, ... the extent to which we maintain the spirit of our constitution with its Bill of Rights, will in the long run do more to make it both secure and the object of adulation than the number of hydrogen bombs we stockpile.” So while it was about Black children’s right to education, it was also about much more than that. Just think about it, Jim Crow was so deeply entrenched in American society that people would rather shut down an entire school system for years, rather than allow Black children to attend. Essentially, Jim Crow and “separate but equal” policies were used to diminish the quality of the Black American citizenship experience. We all know that a quality education can improve economic outcomes.

So when so many Black Americans were prevented from having access to the resources they needed for a quality education, it perpetuated the community’s economic despair. What’s more, Brown v Board, also had some pretty drastic unintended consequences. As the ruling was implemented across the country, tens of thousands of Black teachers and principals lost their jobs.

Black children were now beginning to attend white schools, but those white schools didn’t want Black teachers. The idea of a Black teacher or principal being in a position of authority over white students, was just a non-starter for many white parents. Another unsettling part about this is that while Brown v Board attempted to get rid of segregation in American schools, because of policy decisions around education, housing, and zoning, the sad truth is that schools today are as segregated as they were in the late 1960s.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to do. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.


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