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The Walter White Project

Jackson Stakeman, Randy Stakeman, Authors

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Brown v. Board of Education


The Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation in 1954 was the fulfillment of a legal campaign the NAACP had started in the 1930's. Under Charles Houston, the Dean of Howard University Law School, the Association set about developing a cadre of black lawyers who could implement new strategies to press for voting rights, the end of housing discrimination and equal educational opportunities. The Association had first unveiled its legal strategy in the 1932 Margold Report which was presented to its 1932 Annual Conference.  The Report stated that the wide and readily apparent differences in the educational facilities available to white and black citizens provided a path to appeal to the Supreme Court. Over the next two decades the Association lawyers pursued cases showing that segregated graduate and professional schools were inherently unequal and that wages paid to white and black teachers in segregated schools were unfairly unequal. These cases were appealed through local and federal courts all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Usually the Supreme Court supported the arguments brought by Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues.

As historian Patricia Sullivan wrote,

[Marshall's chief assistant Robert] Carter took on the task of devising a strategy to establish the inherent inequality of separate at the primary and secondary level.  The challenge was different fro what the legal staff had confronted in the law and graduate school cases - where intellectual exchange and professional contacts were formative factors...He immersed himself in the social science literature, focusing on evidence of the psychic damage inflicted by segregation...[Kenneth] Clark and his wife Mamie Clark, had developed [a test] using dolls to illustrate the effects of racism on children.  In this exercise, when African American children were presented with a white and brown doll 'they showed an mistakable preference for the white doll and a rejection of the brown doll.'

 The NAACP lawyers first present this and other social science testimony that segregation was inherently unequal by doing psychic harm in a case in the federal district court in Clarendon County, South Carolina where Charles Houston had filmed the facility discrepancies in 1935. Clarendon County officials acknowledged the facilities discrepancies but said that they had appropriated money to correct them. They did not counter the social science evidence of inherent damage.  The three judge panel ruled 2-1 in favor of the county that segregation was indeed legal. The dissenting judge referred to the Supreme Court's decision in the NAACP argued case about graduate school segregation saying if segregation was wrong in graduate school as the Supreme Court had ruled  "the place to stop it is in the first grade."

The NAACP legal team quickly moved to the next case in which several  African American parents were suing the board of education of Topeka, Kansas for the admission of their children to a white school. In this case the physical discrepancies between facilities were not as great as in South Carolina and the segregation was not the result of state law but school board policy.

The NAACP again presented expert social science witnesses this time from local psychologists, sociologists and educators that segregation produced feelings of inferiority among African American students and thus did psychological damage. The court ruled that although it was hard to see where segregation in graduate school produced damage and segregation in primary school did not, the Supreme Court had only ruled that segregation was illegal at the graduate school level.  The primary schools were still governed by the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that segregation as long as it was "separate but equal" was constitutional.

Both the South Carolina and Kansas cases were appealed to the Supreme Court which ultimately bundled them and three other cases under the name of the Kansas case Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. On May 17 the Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision that in education "separate but equal did not apply because separate was inherently unequal.  The court had accepted the social science arguments that the NAACP had presented. The decision removed the lynchpin for legal segregation, the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, in the field of education and the walls of segregation in other areas would eventually fall as well.
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