How the Civil Rights Movement Worked

Brown v. Board of Education

Nathaniel Steward, Brown v Board of Education, integration Nathaniel Steward, Brown v Board of Education, integration
Nathaniel Steward integrates the Saint-Dominique school in Washington, D.C. May 1954. STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

Every day in 1951, Linda Brown, an 8-year-old girl from Topeka, Kansas, would take a bus 5 miles (8 kilometers) to Monroe Elementary School for African-Americans, a racially segregated public school. Only several blocks from her home was Sumner Elementary School, an all-white public school. It would make sense for Linda to go to Sumner — not only was the school much closer to her house than Monroe, it was also newer, cleaner and better staffed. All around, it offered her a better education and experience. But when her father, the Reverend Oliver Brown, attempted to enroll Linda into Sumner, the school's principal wouldn't allow him to do so because of the color of her skin.

Instead of accepting the rejection, Brown went to McKinley Burnett, the head of Topeka's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Along with several other black families, they took the school to court and sued the board of education in what would be the monumental Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision.

The NAACP argued to the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas that segregated schools were inherently unequal because they denied a multitude of opportunities to black children. On the other hand, the Board of Education defended its position with the logic that segregated schools simply prepared children for adulthood in a society where blacks were considered "separate but equal."

Although the judges agreed upon the "detrimental effect" segregation had on children in schools, they failed to look past the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled in favor of the Board of Education. Brown and the NAACP appealed the decision immediately. By May 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared the "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional and required the desegregation of schools across America.

Brown v. Board of Education wasn't the first to challenge Jim Crow laws and the "separate but equal" doctrine — between 1881 and 1949 there were 11 school integration cases in Kansas alone. Three recent decisions from 1950 also made progress at proving Plessy v. Ferguson obsolete. Sweatt v. Painter allowed Herman Sweatt to attend the all-white University of Texas Law School; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education ruled segregation after enrollment unconstitutional; and Henderson v. United States made segregated railroad dining cars illegal. But Brown's case, led by Detroit attorney and head of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund Thurgood Marshall, was the first to make such broad changes.

Desegregation didn't occur immediately. The idea of even partial desegregation was still unpopular with many Southern whites, and the potential for violence led to slow progress. The first major attempt in September 1957, which took place at Little Rock High School in Arkansas, drew protests from townspeople — President Eisenhower was forced to send in 1,000 paratroopers to let a group of nine black students into the school.

Although no one was hurt, tension was still in the air. Indeed, violence was still very much a problem in the South during this era. One murder trial received national attention and shocked blacks and whites everywhere.