In an historic decision handed down 60 years ago this month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the way some cities here then separated students in public schools by their race was illegal and unconstitutional.
In an historic decision handed down 60 years ago this month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the way some cities here then separated students in public schools by their race was illegal and unconstitutional. The unanimous ruling brought an end to federal tolerance of racial segregation, and set our nation on a path toward greater respect for the rights of all citizens.
Linda Brown, a young African American girl living in Topeka, Kansas, had been denied admission to her local elementary school because of the color of her skin. A high court ruling at the end of the 19th century had sanctioned such practices, noting that accommodations that were "separate but equal" for different races met the guarantee of equal protection under law required by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That decision was used to justify segregating all public facilities – schools, restaurants, public transportation and others – if the community chose to do so. Many did, particularly in the American South.
The all-white school that Linda Brown wanted to attend was far better than the black alternative and miles closer to her home. The nation’s leading civil rights group took up Linda's cause, led by Thurgood Marshall, an African American lawyer who himself would sit on the Supreme Court one day. On May 17, 1954, the high court handed down its decision, ruling unanimously that not only was "separate but equal" unconstitutional in Linda's case, it was so in all cases because educational segregation stamped an inherent badge of inferiority on African American students.
Linda Brown’s case served to greatly inspire and motivate the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and ultimately led to the abolishment of racial segregation in all public facilities and accommodations. In May 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed far-reaching legislation to protect the rights of citizens to vote, choose where to live and apply for jobs. That in turn became the touchstone for greater rights for women and other segments of society, in a process of legal and social entitlement that continues to this day.