Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
The landmark unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the “separate but equal” precedent established in Plessy v. Ferguson. With a ruling of 8-1, the Plessy v. Ferguson Court purported that as long as the facilities that the two races occupied were equal in quality and accommodations, then it was constitutionally permissible for the facilities to be separate. The majority stated that: “The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” - Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896)
In other words, the Court upheld the statute that allowed racially segregated but equal railroad carriages because the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was addressing political not social equality. The Court cannot enact a law that coerces one race of people to commingle with another race of people and “the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.” The second reasoning the majority gave to substantiate the Court’s ruling addressed the assumption that the Louisiana statute making segregation of the railroad facilities legal implied inferiority among the races. However, the Court argued, “if this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” This is where the root of Harlan’s dissent lies. Harlan proclaimed that our U.S. Constitution is color-blind and “if a white man and a black man choose to occupy the same public conveyance on a public highway, it is their right to do so; and no government, proceeding alone on grounds of race, can prevent it without infringing the personal liberty of each.” Plessy v. Ferguson marshaled an era of increased discrimination towards blacks. Upholding the “separate but equal” doctrine provided justification for segregation in not only railroad carriages, but in public facilities across the country, including schools. This precedent stood almost unchallenged for nearly fifty years, until a series of decisions were brought forth that questioned the constitutionality of segregation in regards to education. There were a few cases (i.e., Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents) brought forth in order to tear away at the precedent, but the Courts upheld the constitutionality of the precedent and concluded that the lack of educational opportunities allotted to blacks was unconstitutional. Even though these cases did not result in abolishing the “separate but equal” precedent, they did pave the way for the latter Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The issue brought before the Court of Brown v. Board of Education was whether racial segregation of children in public schools deprives minority children of equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. An unanimous decision declaring the “separate but equal” precedent unconstitutional in the realm of public education was reached with the help of Chief Justice Warren’s persuasion. The rationale used by the Brown v. Board of Education Court to overrule the Plessy precedent was that the notion of inferiority was inherent in the precedent, not a construction created by the minority children, and that the dehumanizing effects of segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth amendment. In the Court’s opinion, Warren first established the inherent inferiority that the precedent implies and its dehumanizing effects on the minority psyche. He states: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental...
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