For several years prior to the Supreme Court decision
in Brown v. Board in 1954, the Legal Defense Fund had tested cases
in the south and Border States. Each had required the courageous
participation of ordinary men and women who faced overwhelming opposition,
intimidation and in some cases the risk of physical harm in lending
their names to these pioneering cases, which would collectively
be presented to the Supreme Court under the name of Brown
Bolling v. Sharpe originated in Washington, DC in
1947 when a group of parents organized as the Consolidated Parents
Group, Inc., represented by special counsel to the NAACP Charles
Houston, argued for the admission of eleven Negro students to the
newly constructed John Philip Sousa Junior High School. When Houston
became ill, his colleague James Nabrit, Jr. took the case, and he
did not argue along the lines that the seperate facilities were
unequal, but that segregation itself was unacceptable. Despite the
fact that the school wasn't filled to capacity with white students,
the plaintiffs were denied. Before the LDF could secure an appeal,
the case was added to the Supreme Court docket along with the others
that made up the Brown petition.
v. (versus) Elliott was named for Harry Briggs, one of the parents
assembled by a fearless High School Principal, the Rev. J. A. DeLaine,
who first brought suit against R. W. Elliott, the president of the
school board of Clarendon, South Carolina in 1950. Thurgood Marshal
and Harold Boulware argued the case, and used evidence asserting
that the inequality of the separate facilities must be addressed.
De Laine faced repeated violent attacks from whites, who fired shotguns
into, and set fire to, his house, forcing him to flee the state
for his own safety.
Davis v. (versus) the County School Board of Prince
Edward County originated in 1951 when Barbara Rose Johns, the niece
of the venerable Baptist minister Vernon Johns and a high school
student in Farmville Virginia, led a student strike to protest substandard
conditions at the all-Black Moton High School. NAACP lawyers Spottswood
Robinson and Oliver Hill filed suit on behalf of one hundred seventeen
students. The U.S. District Court denied the petition, citing a
lack of evidence of any negative effects on either race from the
forced separation, despite the fact that Moton didn't even have
restrooms for the faculty, and the students were so overcrowded
that many were housed in tar-paper out-buildings and even an old
school bus. When the Brown case overturned the ruling, County officials
cut off all funding for the School Board, and actually shut down
the schools for five years rather than see them integrated. Barbara
Johns left the state for her own safety after the case was argued.
Brown v. (versus) the Board of Education of Topeka
was also first filed in 1951. A year before, with the support of
the local NAACP, thirteen parents, including Oliver Brown, had unsuccessfully
attempted to enroll their children in their all-white neighborhood
schools. Fund lawyers Robert Carter and Jack Greenberg assisted
local lawyers Charles Bledsoe, Charles Scott and John Scott in filing
the suit. The District Court denied the case, but accepted the social-psychological
argument first presented in Briggs v. Elliott, which asserted that
segregation was damaging to black children. These findings were
later cited by the Supreme Court in their landmark ruling.
had two different cases challenging the "Separate but Equal"
doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. It was the only suit among the five
heard collectively as Brown v. Board that was successful at the
state level. The ground-breaking decision caused Marshall to comment,
‘This is the first real victory in our campaign to destroy
segregation of American pupils in elementary and high schools.’
Belton v. (versus) Gebhart and Bulah v. (versus) Gebhart sought
admission for Ethel Belton and Shirley Bulah to their all white
neighborhood schools. Particularly infuriating to the Bulah family
was the fact that a "white" school bus passed by their
house twice a day, but would not allow Shirley to board.
In 1951, Jack Greenberg assisted Louis Redding in
successfully presenting cases before Chancellor Collins Seitz in
Delaware's Court of Chancery. Psychiatrist Frederick
Wertham from the LaFargue Clinic in New York provided expert
testimony, along with Kenneth Clark who administered his doll tests
to black school children in Wilmington. The Chancellor ruled that
"equal protection of the law" was not being provided to
the Belton and Bulah children, and ordered eleven black children
admitted to white schools. The decision, however, did not remedy
the situation, and even after the case was affirmed by the Supreme
Court, it would take years before schools in Delaware began to truly
By the summer of 1953, the Republican president Dwight
Eisenhower was well into his first term in office. The Cold War
was escalating and McCarthyism was making its way into the national
vocabulary. Distracted by more sensational news, few whites in the
North or South displayed any enthusiasm for the Brown case.
In the courtroom, Marshall
faced a formidable adversary in the aged but still impassioned John
W. Davis, who had been the Democratic candidate for President in
1924. Eighty and eloquent, Davis led the opposition, asserting that
there was no basis for the claim that the Fourteenth Amendment included
in its scope the idea of equal public education.
held his ground. No less a master presenter, he and his elite corps
of lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argued
the facts and presented expert testimony before a crowded Supreme
Court chamber. He argued that the South was guilty of "an inherent
determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless
of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible,
and now is the time, we submit that this Court should make it clear
that that is not what our Constitution stands for."
Following the arguments, the nine Justices deliberated independently
and in conference, asking for response to five key questions. In
June of 1953, the Court restored the segregation cases to its docket.
At center was the history of the 14th amendment and whether it was
intended to address segregation in education. The postponement threatened
to bankrupt the Fund and the NAACP issued urgent appeals for support.
During the postponement, the Fund secured the services
of eminent historians and educators. Among the scholars was Horace
Mann Bond, president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, who
offered a thesis linking the effects of the 14th Amendment and the
development of public education.
September 8, 1953, conservative Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who
had led the Supreme Court
for three terms, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was sixty-three
years old. This event marked a change in the makeup of the court,
and many scholars believe this paved the way to the final Brown
v. Board decision.
Eisenhower appointed former California Governor Earl Warren as Vinson's
replacement as Chief Justice. On December 7, 1953 the school segregation
cases were again called for presentation. The argument lasted for
three days. Warren proved to be a strong voice in favor of desegregation,
and took it upon himself to personally pore over the details of
the cases with his fellow Justices in an effort to bring a unanimous
decision on the matter.
In the new year, as the Court considered its decision in the case
of Brown v. Board, Earl Warren was invited to a White House Dinner
where the President seated him next to John W. Davis. Eisenhower
called Davis ‘a great American.’ Like others, Eisenhower
held the view that the cause of civil rights for African Americans
was advancing, albeit slowly, and that that to force it by legal
action was confrontational.
The Legal Defense Fund Team had now had reached consensus on the
view that, although the 14th Amendment did not specifically include
a ban on segregated education, by all measure there was no public
educational system in the country at the time. Therefore, they would
argue, that the framers of the 14th Amendment would naturally not
have addressed segregated schools. But, had there been a public
educational system at the time, they would most certainly have addressed
segregation in education. The 20th century, supporters argued, required
a new and final definition of the role of race in education.
Court agreed, stating that historical precedent in the case of education
was irrelevant to the present day demands that required equal access
to quality education in order to succeed in the contemporary world.
On May 17, 1954, the Court announced a unanimous decision in favor
of the Plaintiffs. Though included in Brown, the Supreme Court issued
a separate opinion in Bolling v. Sharpe, based upon the 5th Amendment
and due process, as the 14th Amendment was not applicable in the
District of Columbia.
Warren issued his first major opinion as Chief Justice. ‘In
these days,’ Warren wrote, ‘it is doubtful that any
child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied
the opportunity of an education.‘ Less than ten minutes later,
he summarized, ’In view of our decision that the Constitution
prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public
schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would
impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government.’