`Separate but equal' was the law of the land, until one decision brought it crashing down
By Justin Ewers
Brown v. Board of Education is remembered as a case of simple justice. In the fall of 1950, the story goes, Linda Brown, a 7-year-old girl living in Topeka, Kan., had to travel 21 blocks each day, by foot and by bus, to get to her all-black elementary school. Yet only seven blocks from her home was another elementary school--a school for whites only. Her father, Oliver Brown, asked that she be allowed to enroll there instead. When the principal refused, Brown sued. Two years later, Linda's long walk ended in the highest court in the land.
The rest, of course, is history. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision that had cemented the "Jim Crow" notion of "separate but equal" into American law. Twenty-one states' school segregation laws, affecting nearly 12 million black and white children in more than 11,000 school districts, were swept away. "Probably no case ever to come before the nation's highest tribunal affected more directly the minds, hearts, and daily lives of so many Americans," writes historian Richard Kluger in Simple Justice, his definitive history of the decision.
But there is more to the case than meets the eye. "The problem with the mythology around Brown, " says Cheryl Brown Henderson, Oliver Brown's youngest daughter, "is not only that it's oversimplified; a lot of it is just not true." For one thing, she points out, her father was hardly the only plaintiff in the case; in Topeka alone, there were 13 claimants in the suit against the city's Board of Education. By the time Brown reached the Supreme Court, the case had been combined with four others, involving nearly 200 plaintiffs from three states and the District of Columbia--all with similar complaints about long commutes or inadequate schools--under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Uncertain. And as right as it feels today, the case was hardly a sure thing. "The fact that it was a unanimous decision makes it seem like it was easy," says Michael Klarman, author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: the Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, "but it easily could have come out the other way." Indeed, historians say, the decision--and the future of segregation in America--rested on more than the injustice of Linda Brown's unnecessary hike to school, on more than the systemic inequities in public schools at the time, or the eloquent arguments made for inclusion. In the end, Brown hinged on the death of the chief justice of the United States--and, ultimately, on the man who replaced him.
It started, though, with a public school system that had failed its public. "Most people don't know how unequal education really was" before Brown, says Klarman. Compared with schools in the South, Topeka--which had integrated its secondary schools well before 1954--was a mild case. In Clarendon County, S.C., for example, Joseph De Laine Jr., went to a school with 10 teachers, almost 800 kids, and no indoor plumbing. "Even to us as children at the time, we recognized the fact of the inequity, and of course we were bitter about it, but it happened to be a fact of life," says De Laine, whose father, a pastor, would be instrumental in bringing to court one of the other Brown cases, Briggs v. Elliot.