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Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

May, 2004

 

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education

By Janet Stidman Eveleth

 

Brown

MSBA celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Education, the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision that began the dismantling of segregation in this country's schools.
(Photo © Corbis/Bettman)

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that advanced equality in this country by ending a social injustice that denied equal rights to many American citizens. The Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) is celebrating this momentous occasion by devoting this special May issue of the Bar Bulletin to Brown vs. Board of Education. The Association dedicated Law Day 2004 to this historic hallmark and is commemorating it with two outstanding Law Day events and a special community Brown vs. Board of Education Speakers’ Bureau.

Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court began the process of dismantling segregation in this country’s public schools when it struck down the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. This monumental high court ruling paved the way for desegregation in our nation’s schools. It played an important role in the civil rights movement in this country and the pursuit of equal rights for all citizens.

By tradition, Americans celebrate Law Day by honoring our freedom, our country’s rich legal heritage, our U.S. Constitution and our doctrine of liberty, justice and equality for all under the law. MSBA dedicated Law Day 2004 to Brown to uphold these principles and pay tribute to the hallmark Supreme Court ruling that won equality by law. Brown underscores and illuminates the true meaning of equality in our democracy.

“The Brown decision is significant for many reasons,” remarks MSBA President Harry S. Johnson. “The most obvious is that the Supreme Court explicitly overruled Plessy vs. Ferguson, finding unanimously that separate can never be equal with regard to the education of children. While earlier cases had desegregated education on a graduate student level, this case took the issue of desegregation into every home in this country.”

“Once segregation was attacked in education, other institutions soon began to desegregate,” Johnson continues. “On another level, this case evidences the immense power vested in the Supreme Court to assure that the protections provided by the Constitution and the 14th Amendment are extended to every citizen in this country.”

The Origin of Brown vs. Board of Education

Brown ignited the quest for equality and justice under the law in this nation. The roots of this landmark decision actually date back to the 1930s when the NAACP, led by a distinguished group of African-American attorneys including Thurgood Marshall, began using the law as the means to better the lives of African-Americans. They legally challenged entities sanctioning segregation, including state public school systems.

Initially, they sought the “separate but equal” doctrine decreed in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson at the turn of the century. However, they quickly discovered that while segregated schools were separate, they were certainly not equal. So the attorneys revised their legal strategy in the 1950s and challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine as unconstitutional. Their mission was to completely eradicate segregation in this land.

Around the same time, Linda Brown, a third grader in Topeka, Kansas, had to walk five miles a day through a dangerous part of town to simply get to her segregated school. Concerned over his daughter’s safety, Brown’s father attempted to enroll her in the white school, a mere four blocks away. She was turned away due to legally imposed segregation. In 1951, the NAACP took up this case and represented Brown, challenging segregation in this state’s public school system. This was the origin of Brown.

The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case is actually the culmination of a long line of court cases from decisions in Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia. While the conditions of the schools varied by large degree from state to state, all were segregated by the law. Roughly 200 plaintiffs and over 12 lawyers were involved in these historic cases.

Four of these cases were argued on appeal to the United States Supreme Court in 1952. The issue was whether segregation deprived students of equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, unanimously declared that segregation of the public schools was unconstitutional. The Chief Justice’s decision stated, “We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” This was a major victory in the struggle for equality and equal protection for all Americans under the law.

Ramifications of Brown

Eventually, this legal hallmark wrought revolutionary transformations in this country. It served as the precipice for the pursuit of equal opportunity and equal protection under the law and ultimately changed the civil rights landscape in this nation. Brown was the foundation that was instrumental in ending legally imposed segregation in parks, libraries and all other public institutions.

But this was just the beginning. Brown was the inspiration that led to justice in other contexts, including voting rights, gender equity and the protection of disabled Americans. Over the years, its spirit ushered in an era of unprecedented progress in this country. Brown initiated the quest for equal opportunities for all, a quest that still continues today.

“There is no question that there has been tremendous progress since 1954,” states MSBA’s President. “The current composition of our Court of Appeals is substantial evidence of that progress. Yet many pockets of our society remain essentially segregated.”

“If we look at our schools today, in many areas they are as segregated as they were in 1954,” adds Johnson. “Our corporate community, including the legal profession, has yet to reflect the diversity of our general community. I speak with law students who still perceive barriers to their entry into this profession due to their color or ethnicity.

“We also see evidence of a backlash – that is, those people who claim that they are being deprived of some privilege by programs designed to help minorities. As a culture and as a profession, we still have a way to go before we can truly say that every child now has equal opportunity and that every person will get equal justice under law.”

Thus, MSBA dedicated Law Day 2004 to all of the strides in equality which have been made in this country in the last 50 years. We paid tribute to the hallmark Supreme Court decision that won and protected equality in this nation’s schools. We paid homage to the driving force behind the civil rights movement that enriched our lives as American citizens.

Law Day was devoted to the legal milestone that promoted and preserved equality in our schools and eventually in our society. Through our rule of law and our court system, Brown vs. Board of Education redefined equality in this country. It is a testament to our legal system’s ability to establish and protect our legal rights.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May, 2004

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