When it reached the Supreme Court, the litigation known as Brown v. Board of Education included five consolidated lawsuits from four states, including South Carolina (from Clarendon County, see photos of Paxville, Clarendon County, schools) and Kansas. The Topeka, Kansas, case involved grade-schooler Linda Brown, who had been obliged to attend a black school 21 blocks from her house. There was a white school only seven blocks away.
Significantly, the trial court had denied the Kansas plaintiff (technically, the plaintiff was Linda Brown's father, the Rev. Oliver Brown) relief by finding that the segregated black and white schools there were of comparable quality. This gave Marshall the chance to urge that the Supreme Court at last rule that segregated facilities were, by definition and as a matter of law, unequal and hence unconstitutional.
On May 17, 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court vindicated Marshall's strategy. Citing the Clark paper and other studies identified by plaintiffs, the Supreme Court ruled decisively:
... in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated ... are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Education attorney Deryl W. Wynn, a member of the Oxford University Roundtable on Education Policy, has said of the significance of Brown,
Here was the highest court in the land essentially saying that something was wrong with how black Americans were being treated. ... I remember my father, who was a teenager at the time, saying the decision made him feel like he was somebody. ... On a personal level, Brown's real legacy is that it serves as a constant reminder that each child, each of us, is somebody.
The Court did not specify a timeframe for ending school segregation, but the following year, in a group of cases known collectively as "Brown II," Marshall and his colleagues secured a Supreme Court ruling that desegregation proceed "with all deliberate speed."
Even then, resistance continued in parts of the South. In September 1957, when black students were forcibly turned away from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Marshall flew to the city and filed suit in federal court. Marshall's victory in this case set the stage for President Dwight Eisenhower's declaration of September 24: "I have today issued an Executive Order directing the use of troops under Federal authority to aid in the execution of Federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. ... Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."
Ultimately, Marshall would obtain another Supreme Court decision, this one ordering the immediate desegregation of the Little Rock public schools.
In 1956, Marshall – using Brown as the key decision – came to the legal rescue of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The boycott began on December 1, 1955, sparked by Rosa Parks' brave refusal to relinquish her seat on a segregated municipal bus to a white man. It was Marshall and the NAACP's legal team who argued for Montgomery's blacks before the courts. A November 13, 1956, Supreme Court ruling held unconstitutional the policy of relegating blacks to the back of the bus. The city of Montgomery yielded and the boycott succeeded at last.
Although many dedicated professionals worked with him, no American contributed more than Thurgood Marshall to the dismantling of legal segregation. Few could boast of a greater record of achievement, but Marshall's career of public service had only begun. He would support the cause of civil rights for all at the highest federal level, as the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.
[Michael Jay Friedman is a staff writer with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs. He holds a doctorate in U.S. political and diplomatic history.]
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