The Supreme Court rejects the separate but equal doctrine

The U.S. Supreme Court’s two decisions in Brown v. Board of Education were the culmination of years of effort by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and numerous individuals who courageously served as plaintiffs in cases filed around the United States. The primary target of this effort was the court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that essentially provided the legal basis for “Jim Crow” laws by upholding the separate but equal doctrine. The key battleground for that challenge would be segregated schools.

Brown v. Board of Education changed this nation. The Supreme Court overturned decades of jurisprudence when it ruled that state laws denying equal access to education based on race violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Brown changed public education in the United States and paved the way for the civil rights movement that took shape in the 1960s and continues today.

Brown also demonstrates the importance of effective legal strategy. While named for a class action that began in Topeka, Kan., Brown actually represents the consolidation of five cases from four states and the District of Columbia, and some 150 plaintiffs. For years, the NAACP—led by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and other renowned lawyers and scholars who have now taken their places in history—had orchestrated trial strategies that resulted in these cases reaching the Supreme Court.

Brown paved the way for the groundbreaking use of expert evidence in federal civil rights cases. Two educational psychologists performed innovative sociological testing using white and brown dolls to support conclusions regarding the “enduring and lasting” harms suffered by children in segregated schools. The trial courts admitted the expert evidence that buttressed the Supreme Court’s holding that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Brown taught lessons on how the Supreme Court itself decided a far-reaching case. The court held two oral arguments before it issued its unanimous decision in 1954. Recognizing the potential issues in implementing its decision, the court allowed attorneys general of the states with segregated school systems to submit briefs, then held another argument on how to implement its decision with “all deliberate speed.”

Kim J. Askew is a partner at K&L Gates in Dallas. She chairs the ABA Standing Committee on Public Education. She was the first lawyer of color to chair the ABA Section of Litigation.

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