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The Court’s Commitment to Equal Protection Became Real and Urgent in Brown, 70 Years Ago

May 15, 2024

On May 17, 1954—70 years ago this week—the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that marked its historic first full step toward securing the nation’s commitment to equal protection of the law for all Americans. As Justice Stanley Reed, a southerner from Kentucky who made the courageous decision to reject his region’s sentiments on race to form the Court’s unanimous 9-0 ruling, told one of his law clerks, “If it was not the most important decision in the history of the Court, it was very close.”

In Brown, the Court struck down segregation in public schools as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. While the decision dealt only with the constitutionality of segregation in public schools, because that was the sole issue before the Court, the ruling provided the foundation for the Court over the next decade to hold unconstitutional laws that provided for segregation in public places across the nation, including public beaches, municipal golf courses and other recreational facilities, public buildings, housing, transportation, and restaurants. By 1963, it was possible for the Court to say, “It is no longer open to question that a State may not constitutionally require segregation of public facilities.”

Segregation had been upheld by the Supreme Court in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, despite the clear language in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment that forbade states from making or enforcing laws that denied the equal protection of the laws. The Plessy Court had declared that “separate but equal” facilities for Blacks and whites did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The practice of segregation was intended to keep Black Americans in a status of inferiority—philosophically, legally, and psychologically.

Segregation violated the essential guarantee of the Declaration of Independence, which President Abraham Lincoln justly regarded as the “sheet anchor of the republic.” The central tenet of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal,” which Lincoln characterized as an aspiration for legal equality, to be fulfilled when the nation reached a degree of maturity and commitment to equal protection of the laws, could not be squared with the practice of segregation. This philosophical mantra of the nation found expression in the 14th Amendment’s trumpet call for legal equality.

From a psychological standpoint, segregation was devastating. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the Court in Brown, segregated schools could not provide equal educational opportunities. The same was true for children in public schools. “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 a community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The drama surrounding the Brown decision had built to a fever pitch on May 17. Inside the Supreme Court, the curtain behind the bench parted at noon, precisely, and the Justices, adhering to a tradition, decades old, followed the Chief Justice and filed to their seats on the high bench which, that day, was the focal point of the nation’s attention. Chief Justice Warren recounted years later, “As we Justices marched into the courtroom on that day, there was a tenseness that I have not seen equaled before or since.”

Anticipation of the Court’s ruling was marked by those citizens who, days earlier, had begun forming long lines outside the Court, hoping to fill the few seats available to the public. Those in the courtroom knew something important was coming. For one thing, all the Justices’ wives were present, which rarely occurs except on historic occasions. For another, Justice Robert H. Jackson was present. The ailing Justice, visited in the hospital that morning by Chief Justice Warren, insisted on attending Court that day, as Warren said, “to demonstrate our solidarity.”

Chief Justice Warren read the entire opinion, something the Court reserves for historic decisions with far-reaching implications for the country. When Warren declared, “We conclude unanimously that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has not place,” a surge of emotion swept across the courtroom. Until that moment, neither the press nor the public had any idea that the Court had “unanimously” decided to strike down segregation in public schools. Reporters bolted from their seats and sprinted to the bank of telephones on the wall outside the chambers to inform editors of the Court’s historic decision. At 1:20 p.m., on May 17, 1954, American law had changed forever.

-David Adler