Chief Justice Earl Warren
Chief Justice Earl Warren

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, racially segregated public schools were accepted under the basis of the “separate but equal” rule. The “separate but equal” rule man­dated separate accommodations for blacks and whites on buses, trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools. Many civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), worked to overturn this ruling for several decades. In 1952, the NAACP brought five cases before the Supreme Court that directly challenged the precedent estab­lished in Plessy v. Ferguson. Due to the divided opinion of the Court on whether or not it was possible to overturn this ruling, the justices called for additional hearings at a later date.

Following several setbacks, includ­ing the death of Chief Justice Frederick Vinson, the Supreme Court agreed to hear each case once again during its 1953 term. The five cases brought before the Supreme Court illustrated that many public schools in America were not providing equal facilities and materials to African American students. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s lead attorney, argued that the “separate but equal” rule vio­lated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted citizenship to all citizens regard­less of color, and provided equal protection under the law.

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unani­mous ruling of the Court, stating that the segregation of public schools was in fact a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. This historic decision ended the “separate but equal” rule that had been in place for nearly six decades. The Court’s opinion in this landmark case helped expand the civil rights movement in the United States, advancing the idea that every citizen deserves America’s promise of equality and justice under the law.



…We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does…. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferior­ity as to their status in the community that may affect their heart and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.…

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal….