CUBE Backgrounder - April 2014


Five different legal cases challenging racial segregation in U.S. schools were combined under the title, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The others: Bolling v. Sharpe - Washington, D.C.; Briggs v. Elliott - Clarendon County, South Carolina; Gebhart v. Belton - Claymont and Hockessin, Delaware, and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County - Virginia. 

The U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 unanimously ruled that racially separate schools were innately unequal, and thus violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That ruling cleared the way for children of all races and ethnicities to attend classes together.

Conditions could be starkly imbalanced. In Clarendon County, South Carolina, for example, some African American children walked 18 miles round trip each day to an inferior school, while White students rode buses to partake in a quality education.

Contrary to popular belief, Brown was not the first federal court opinion to strike down separate schools for non-White children. That honor belongs to Mendez v. Westminster, issued in 1946 – eight years before Brown. The entire 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of 5,000 parents, declaring that segregation of Mexican and Mexican American children in California schools was unconstitutional.

Today’s Meaning for Urban Schools

Urban school districts are among the most racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse learning communities in the nation. Even now, courts invoke Brown as a beacon to remind public school officials that academic excellence should not be apportioned by race, wealth, gender, language, or any other arbitrary criteria. As policy makers, urban school board members can set the tone in encouraging unity, excellence and equity. Significantly, two of the districts involved in Brown (D.C. and Topeka) were urban systems.

A Brown Decision Quote Still True in 2014   

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… It is the very foundation of good citizenship… In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

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