`Separate but equal' was the law of the land, until one decision brought it crashing down
De Laine's experience was no exception. The Supreme Court, in 1896, had said "separate" was legal as long as it was "equal." But in the South, equality was a fantasy. In the decades before Brown, South Carolina spent 10 times as much on educating every white child as it did on every black child. Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama spent five times as much.
Enlisted. World War II would change everything. Nine hundred thousand African-Americans had enlisted to fight in what was still a segregated military. As one black corporal said upon his return: "I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I'm hanged if I'm going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirree-bob! I went into the Army a n- - - - -; I'm comin' out a man." Membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People swelled from 50,000 in 1940 to 450,000 in 1946.
By 1950, the first cracks in segregation had already appeared. In 1947, California had abolished segregated schools, and Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in baseball. A year later, President Truman desegregated the armed forces. And in 1950, Thurgood Marshall, then a young lawyer working as lead counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, won three landmark cases desegregating graduate programs (a relatively easy target since, apart from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a medical school in Nashville, the South didn't offer black students any graduate education at all).
Marshall, a graduate of Baltimore's segregated schools who would later be the first African-American named to the Supreme Court, decided the time had come to demand more than just separate equality. Congressional or executive action wasn't an option; Capitol Hill was dominated by southerners, for whom civil rights legislation was anathema. Even FDR, when asked in 1935 to support an antilynching bill, had told a black leader, "I just can't take that risk." The fight would have to be waged in the courts. The NAACP board immediately began advising members that lawsuits should be aimed at "obtaining education on a nonsegregated basis and that no relief other than that will be acceptable."
Marshall went back to work in South Carolina, where he had been pursuing equal facilities and buses, and instead began targeting segregation itself. The next spring, Marshall first argued against "separate but equal" in Briggs v. Elliot, a class action lawsuit brought by black residents of Clarendon County. Cases were also filed in Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. And in Topeka, the local NAACP branch found Oliver Brown, a 32-year-old family man with three daughters, who was the assistant pastor at his church--the ideal candidate for a lawsuit. Brown and his fellow plaintiffs were told to locate the white school nearest their home and attempt to enroll their children. All were denied admission.
One by one, through 1951 and 1952, the cases worked their way up through the system, as lower court judges deferred or rejected the NAACP's claims outright. They finally made it to the Supreme Court in the fall of 1952, where they were consolidated under the name Brown v. Board of Education. The justices chose to use the name of the Kansas case, according to Justice Tom Clark, "so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely southern one."