Breaking Barriers: The Impact of Brown v Board of Education on Equality in America
The Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education ended legally sanctioned segregation in American schools but also brought about broad changes to ideas of equality and citizenship. Wheaton College scholars from three disciplines—education, history, and psychology—examine how that change happened.
Breaking Barriers clients receive a Brilliant Corners Housing Coordinator, a Chrysalis Employment Specialist, and the support of a referring Probation Officer. This collaboration helps stabilize and support clients on their path to self-sufficiency.
In the late 1940s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began a concentrated effort to challenge segregation laws in public schools. One of the lawsuits they filed, which became known as Brown vs Board of Education, was brought by a man named Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda after they were denied entrance to Topeka, Kansas’ all-white schools. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court after it was combined with four similar cases sponsored by the NAACP from South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, argued the case before the Supreme Court.
The decision struck down a legal precedent established by the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v Ferguson. That precedent allowed racial segregation of public facilities, including schools, so long as the segregated facilities were deemed equal in quality.
However, it had become apparent by 1954 that segregation rarely produces equality. Segregation’s persistence contradicted the Constitution’s assurance of equality, as articulated in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
While the Supreme Court’s decision was a historic milestone for the civil rights movement, there are still barriers to true equality in education. Today, many children do not have access to a quality education. Our charity partners are working to break these barriers by giving kids the tools they need to succeed.
In the aftermath of Brown, African Americans were often forced to leave teaching positions where they had become well-established. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s decision to strike segregation in schools significantly setback teacher recruitment efforts. As a result, the percentage of African-American teachers in America has declined from 14% to 10.8% today. This is an issue that cannot be solved by education alone.
Brilliant Corners developed Breaking Barriers in collaboration with Chrysalis, Los Angeles County Probation, Corporation for Supportive Housing, and other partners to address the underlying causes of this decrease. This groundbreaking program provides housing, tenancy support, and employment services to justice-impacted adults living in homelessness. The program is nationally recognized as a model that reduces recidivism, improves health outcomes, and increases job opportunities for people on probation.
The case that ultimately became known as Brown v Board of Education was a collection of five lawsuits: the leading case of Brown itself, along with three other NAACP-sponsored cases involving school segregation in Clarendon, South Carolina; Davis v County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia; and Gebhart v. Belton, Delaware. The cases contended that the equal protection section of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed all people the same educational opportunity regardless of race and that the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which created the “separate but equal” doctrine, was no longer valid.
The legal victory in Brown did not transform America overnight, and much work remains to be done. Nevertheless, ending segregation in public schools served as a significant driving force for the civil rights movement, eventually paving the way for advancements in desegregating residences, workplaces, and universities.
The case began in 1951 when the school district in Topeka, Kansas, refused to enroll Oliver Brown’s daughter in the all-white school closest to their home. Instead, the school system required her to take a bus to a segregated black school that was far away. The family filed a class-action lawsuit against the school board, claiming that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Brown, the Court struck down laws requiring separate public education systems for black and white students and ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. The unanimous decision set the stage for the desegregation of schools across the country.
The case also laid the groundwork for later court decisions that applied Brown’s principles to other types of segregation, such as de facto racial segregation and barriers to educational equity that compound for marginalized populations such as LGBTQ students, English-language learners, and Dreamers. Today, healthcare disparities continue to persist. Identifying and overcoming barriers to high-quality health care is essential to ensuring that everyone can live their best life.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People brought five distinct cases against school boards in seventeen southern and bordering states, eventually leading to the Brown case. The plaintiffs, including Oliver Brown and his wife Linda, challenged the constitutionality of segregated public schools based on Plessy v Ferguson. According to this Supreme Court ruling, as long as facilities were considered “equal,” racial segregation did not violate the equivalent Protection Clause. The district court in Topeka, Kansas, ruled against the family and represented by NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall; they appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Court’s landmark Brown decision, authored by Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter and delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that racial segregation of public education facilities was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s decision was unprecedented and a historic turning point in American history.
Breaking Barriers chronicles the tumultuous road that led to and from Brown, presenting incisive portraits of co-plaintiff Oliver Brown, his daughter Linda, NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Justice Felix Frankfurter—all of whom recognized the importance of a unanimous decision and invested enormous time and effort convincing other justices who had initially intended to dissent to join them in a majority opinion. The legal victory of Brown would not transform America overnight. Still, it set the stage for the civil rights movement. It opened new doors for desegregating housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher learning in a country that still struggled to fulfill its parchment promises nearly ninety years after the Civil War.