We are now celebrating the 60th anniversary of one of the most significant court decisions in American history. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. One of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs was Thurgood Marshall, who would later be appointed to the Supreme Court as the first African American on the court.
It seems incredible that we would have to wait almost 90 years after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 for a court decision that stated that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The long and tortured path from 1865 to 1954 involved many decisions that now seem incredible as well.
For example in 1896, the Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law that required an African American man to give up his seat to a white man did not violate the Equal Protection law. The following statement from that decision seems absurd today: "The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the 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 endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality. . . If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” The lone dissenter, John Marshall Harlan said what we now believe to be true: “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows not or tolerates classes among citizens.”
The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was formed in 1909 and began sponsoring legal challenges to laws offensive to the U.S. Constitution. One of those challenges took place in Missouri. Lloyd Gaines, a graduate student of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, applied to the University of Missouri Law School but was denied admission because of his race. The State of Missouri gave Gaines the option of either attending an all-black law school that it would build or having Missouri help to pay for him to attend a law school in a neighboring state.
Gaines rejected both of these options, and, employed Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to sue the state in order to attend the University of Missouri's law school. In 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Gaines. A six-member majority stated that since a "black" law school did not currently exist in the State of Missouri, the "equal protection clause" required the state to provide Gaines admission to the MU Law School and it could not send black students to school in another state.
Four years before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, the Supreme Court ordered the state of Oklahoma to stop requiring George McLaurin, a student in its doctoral program, to sit apart from the rest of his class and to eat at a separate table from white students.
Brown v. Board of Education was actually the name given to five cases that were combined and heard before the Supreme Court together. The ruling declared segregation in public schools a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The named plaintiff, Oliver Brown, was a parent and a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad; he was also an assistant pastor at his local church in Topeka. Brown was persuaded to join the lawsuit by a friend, who had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop so she could ride a bus to her black school. The white school was seven blocks from her house. The NAACP leadership directed the parents to attempt enrollment at the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951 and were refused, which led to the legal challenge.
In 1955, Brown II was decided as the Supreme Court delegated the task of carrying out school desegregation to the federal district courts “with all deliberate speed.” Of course, Kansas City's desegregation case arose from that decision and occupied the federal court in Kansas City from 1977 until 2003 when a district court judge stated that it was unlikely that the Kansas City School District would discriminate against African-American children again.
Ironically, the judge who handled the Kansas City desegregation case, Russell Clark, died the same year that the case came to a close.
Jack Greenberg, one of the attorneys who argued the Brown case 60 years ago, is speaking at a symposium at UMKC at Pierson Hall on April 10 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The symposium is called “Pursuing the Dreams of Brown and Civil Rights Act, a Living History of the Fight for Educational Equality.” Mr. Greenberg had a pivotal role in American history that has impacted education in a very dramatic manner. I suspect you had never heard of him until now.
Reflecting on the Brown case reminds me of a conversation I had with an African American gentleman at a football game approximately 10 years ago. He had grown up in Independence in the 1950s and he had commented that while he was glad to be at a football game at William Chrisman in which players of all races were participating, he regrets that he was never able to play high school football himself. Every day, he rode a bus to Lincoln High School in Kansas City and never had the opportunity to play football because he had to hop back on the bus after school was out and could not attend practice.
It is difficult for me to grasp the concept that in my lifetime segregation still existed. Fortunately, we have come a long way since then.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org