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On May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Court’s unanimous decision overturned provisions of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had allowed for “separate but equal” public facilities, including public schools in the United States. Declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the Brown v. Board decision helped break the back of state-sponsored segregation, and provided a spark to the American civil rights movement.

This unanimous decision handed down by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, ended federal tolerance of racial segregation. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Court had ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations on railroad cars conformed to the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. That decision was used to justify segregating all public facilities, including schools. In addition, most school districts, ignoring Plessy’s “equal” requirement, neglected their black schools.

In the mid-1930s, however, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) challenged school segregation in a series of court cases. In these the Court required “tangible” aspects of segregated schools to be equivalent. The rulings prompted several school districts to improve their black students’ schools. Then the naacp contested the constitutionality of segregation in four regions. Each of the school districts involved had improved the tangible aspects of its black schools, but Brown brought segregation, per se, squarely before the Court. In the unanimous decision Chief Justice Earl Warren rejected the Plessy doctrine, declaring that “separate educational facilities” were “inherently unequal” because the intangible inequalities of segregation deprived black students of equal protection under the law. A year later, the Court published implementation guidelines requiring federal district courts to supervise school desegregation “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.”

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.