Fiftieth Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education


Fiftieth Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education
The People
May-June 2004

Fiftieth Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education


By B.G.

May 17 of this year marks the 50th anniversary of the noted Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that had established the judicial fiction of "separate but equal" in race relations.

The Plessy case was the last of a series of Supreme Court cases in the post-Civil War era that strengthened segregation in the South. Even before the North had removed its troops from the South in 1877, bringing an end to Reconstruction and the attempts at enforced equality for African Americans, the U.S. Supreme Court had begun to nibble away at whatever equal rights had been established for the emancipated slaves and free blacks in the southern states.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868, had defined citizenship and its rights and protections, stating: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

This amendment would seem to be clean-cut and without ambiguity. The Supreme Court, however, would abridge it considerably before the century was out.

The Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 were the first judicial review of the provisions of the 14th Amendment. The Louisiana legislature had made a monopoly grant that was contested through the court system as being in violation of the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court denied the plaintiff and upheld the grant, distinguishing between state and national citizenship, saying that only the rights derived from federal citizenship were protected by the amendment. The court defined those rights very narrowly. By this decision, civil rights in general were placed under state protection.

In 1875, to strengthen the protection of civil rights, Congress passed a Civil Rights Act that guaranteed to all people, regardless of color or race, equal rights in public places, such as theaters, inns, public transportation, etc. This law also forbade the denial of jury service to African Americans.

In 1883, five cases known collectively as Civil Rights Cases came before the Supreme Court. These were cases where African Americans had been denied either equal accommodations or equal privileges in defiance of the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court declared that law invalid in the matter of protecting social rather than political rights. It further restricted the interpretation of the 14th Amendment by declaring that the amendment prohibited states from restricting civil rights but did not protect the restriction of civil rights by individuals unaided by the state.

This peculiar interpretation of the 14th Amendment thus virtually ended the federal government's attempts to protect the rights of African Americans and opened up a whole era of discrimination against blacks by private individuals and private institutions. It was a decision that actually encouraged southern states to pass segregation laws, including laws requiring separation of blacks and white passengers on railroads.

In 1890, Louisiana passed "An Act to Promote the Comfort of Passengers" that forced railroads to provide "equal but separate" cars for whites and blacks.

Louisiana blacks understandably protested this indignity. The railroads seemed sympathetic, but for economic reasons of their own, for the law would involve the great expense of providing separate cars for the races.

It was decided to have a test case.

On June 7, 1892, Homer A. Plessy boarded a train in New Orleans, seated himself in a car reserved for whites and refused a conductor's request to move. A detective who was conveniently standing by arrested him. A local judge, John H. Ferguson, rejected Plessy's argument of discrimination and violation of civil rights and found him guilty. Plessy then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The case, Plessy v. Ferguson, was tried in 1896, and the court ruled 7 to 1 against Plessy, stating that he had "separate but equal" rights to travel and that there was no evidence that "the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority."

There the matter stood for nearly 60 years while segregation expanded in the country, particularly in the South.

It was not until after World War II that civil rights again became a political and social issue in the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People aimed its attention at discrimination in the schools. It is noteworthy that its landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. (1954), was not against a southern school district but against one in the Midwest. Segregation was not confined to the South.

In a unanimous decision on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Brown, declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and that separation of grade-school children according to 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 decision caused a new type of rebellion in the South, with the formation of White Citizens' Councils to maintain segregation, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and a Southern Manifesto in 1956 signed by 101 southern congressmen and senators declaring the Brown decision "a clear abuse of judicial power." Southern school boards found a variety of ways to stonewall and stall compliance with the decision. Riots and violence erupted at some schools. In 1957, Gov. Orville Faubus of Arkansas called out the Arkansas National Guard to keep nine children from attending Central High School in Little Rock, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,000 paratroopers to protect the children's entry. At the end of the school year, the local authorities closed Central High School for two years.

The civil rights struggle was far from won. It took a more dynamic turn when African Americans themselves began using massive resistance to segregation, including boycotts of businesses and facilities that would not serve them equally and continued street protests. Peaceful rallies and marches were met by violence, police harassment, snarling police dogs, electric cattle prods and water from high-pressure fire hoses, mob attacks, bombings, abductions and murders.

Although the nation is now observing the half-century anniversary of the Brown decision, that victory did not immediately bring the desired results. There was still at least a decade more of bitter struggle, as African Americans grew weary of waiting a whole century after the end of chattel slavery to gain the most rudimentary freedom.

Slavery had existed in all the 13 original American colonies, and became a great convenience to the agrarian capitalists of the South, where it flourished. When slavery was abolished by the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the concept of "inferior" and "superior" races that had been fostered by capitalist necessity remained. It will take the successful outcome of yet another struggle -- the class struggle -- before workers of all backgrounds will have the power to collectively enforce their claim to "liberty and justice for all."