`Separate but equal' was the law of the land, until one decision brought it crashing down
After hearing arguments in December 1953, he went to work on his fellow justices behind the scenes. He knew he already had five other justices in his corner, which left three men's views he needed to accommodate to achieve a unanimous opinion. The first two he was able to sway by offering to soft-pedal the legality of overruling Plessy and to accentuate the principle of equality instead. That left Stanley Reed.
Reed, who realized that a lone dissent from a southerner could be more incendiary than the decision itself, finally came around. "It was a political decision" in the end, says Cray, but to strike down segregation when Jim Crow was the law, it had to be.
Warren drafted the decision himself and, on the morning of May 17, 1954, read it aloud to a crowd gathered at the court. The opinion came down to a statement of principle: "To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way very unlikely ever to be undone," Warren wrote. "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race . . . deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does."
Reed wept as the words were read. Thurgood Marshall "was so happy, I was numb," he said later. Derrick Bell, then a soldier and now a visiting law professor at New York University, recalls "a great sense that coursed through much of America, certainly in the black community, that this was the thing they'd been waiting for, fighting for, for so many years--this seemed like it was the answer."
But the answer would have to wait. Five weeks later, Virginia's governor, Thomas B. Stanley, declared: "I shall use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia." A poll in Florida showed that only 13 percent of police officers intended to enforce attendance laws in racially mixed schools. By 1956, nearly 100 southern congressmen had signed a document called the Southern Manifesto, vowing resistance by all "lawful means."
In the fall of 1955, Joseph De Laine, the South Carolina pastor who had helped bring the Briggs case to court, received a letter giving him 10 days to leave town or die. When he was still around seven days later, his church was burned down. On the 10th day, an armed posse showed up at his house. Gunfire was exchanged, and the pastor left town, never to return.
And yet, that same fall, Linda Brown's youngest sister, Cheryl, started first grade in an integrated school. "We don't pretend that Brown was completely and solely about public schools," says Cheryl Brown Henderson today. "It wasn't. It was about changing the nature of things [and] holding this country to its constitutional promise." Simple, it wasn't. But it was the beginning, at least, of justice.