Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Thurgood Marshall wins against separate but equal with Brown v. Board of Education

Thurgood Marshall, attorney for the NAACP, 1957 Sep. 17.

Thurgood Marshall, attorney for the NAACP, 1957 Sep. 17.
The Case of the Century Marshall wins against separate but equal with Brown case By Michael Jay Friedman

Thanks to Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, the federal courts had ruled that "separate but equal" schools really had to be equal. That was a real achievement, but not the best tool to effect broad change. Poor African Americans in each of the hundreds of school districts in the South could hardly be expected to litigate the comparative merits of segregated black and white schools.
Only a direct ruling against segregation itself could at one stroke eliminate disparities like those in Clarendon County, South Carolina, where per pupil expenditures in 1949-50 averaged $179 for white students and only $43 for blacks. Marshall and his team stepped in to get just such a ruling with the Brown case, and in the process changed the face of American society.

When it reached the Supreme Court, the litigation known as Brown v. Board of Education included five consolidated lawsuits from four states, including South Carolina (from Clarendon County, see photos of Paxville, Clarendon County, schools) and Kansas. The Topeka, Kansas, case involved grade-schooler Linda Brown, who had been obliged to attend a black school 21 blocks from her house. There was a white school only seven blocks away.

Significantly, the trial court had denied the Kansas plaintiff (technically, the plaintiff was Linda Brown's father, the Rev. Oliver Brown) relief by finding that the segregated black and white schools there were of comparable quality. This gave Marshall the chance to urge that the Supreme Court at last rule that segregated facilities were, by definition and as a matter of law, unequal and hence unconstitutional.
Marshall's legal strategy relied on social scientific evidence. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund assembled a team of experts spanning the fields of history, economics, political science, and psychology. Particularly significant was a study in which the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark sought to determine how segregation affected the self-esteem and mental well-being of African Americans. Among their poignant findings: Black children aged three to seven preferred white rather than otherwise identical black dolls.young African American boy watching a group of people

Photograph shows a young African American boy watching a group of people, some carrying American flags, march past to protest the admission of the "Little Rock Nine" to Central High School.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on Brown on two separate occasions. At the second, December 8, 1953, many people realized that history might be in the making. Lines for the 50 general public seats were long. The fortunate heard Assistant U.S. Attorney General J. Lee Rankin offer the federal government's endorsement of the plaintiffs' argument. He asserted that the justices possessed the "power and duty" to rule that segregation violated the Constitution. Those present also heard Thurgood Marshall's powerful summation: The question, Marshall told the Court, was "whether or not the wishes of these [segregationist] states shall prevail or whether our Constitution shall prevail."

On May 17, 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court vindicated Marshall's strategy. Citing the Clark paper and other studies identified by plaintiffs, the Supreme Court ruled decisively:

... in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated ... are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Education attorney Deryl W. Wynn, a member of the Oxford University Roundtable on Education Policy, has said of the significance of Brown,

Here was the highest court in the land essentially saying that something was wrong with how black Americans were being treated. ... I remember my father, who was a teenager at the time, saying the decision made him feel like he was somebody. ... On a personal level, Brown's real legacy is that it serves as a constant reminder that each child, each of us, is somebody.

The Court did not specify a timeframe for ending school segregation, but the following year, in a group of cases known collectively as "Brown II," Marshall and his colleagues secured a Supreme Court ruling that desegregation proceed "with all deliberate speed."

Even then, resistance continued in parts of the South. In September 1957, when black students were forcibly turned away from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Marshall flew to the city and filed suit in federal court. Marshall's victory in this case set the stage for President Dwight Eisenhower's declaration of September 24: "I have today issued an Executive Order directing the use of troops under Federal authority to aid in the execution of Federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. ... Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."

Ultimately, Marshall would obtain another Supreme Court decision, this one ordering the immediate desegregation of the Little Rock public schools.

In 1956, Marshall – using Brown as the key decision – came to the legal rescue of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The boycott began on December 1, 1955, sparked by Rosa Parks' brave refusal to relinquish her seat on a segregated municipal bus to a white man. It was Marshall and the NAACP's legal team who argued for Montgomery's blacks before the courts. A November 13, 1956, Supreme Court ruling held unconstitutional the policy of relegating blacks to the back of the bus. The city of Montgomery yielded and the boycott succeeded at last.

Although many dedicated professionals worked with him, no American contributed more than Thurgood Marshall to the dismantling of legal segregation. Few could boast of a greater record of achievement, but Marshall's career of public service had only begun. He would support the cause of civil rights for all at the highest federal level, as the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.

[Michael Jay Friedman is a staff writer with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs. He holds a doctorate in U.S. political and diplomatic history.]

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