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U.S. EDUCATION > The U.S. Education System > Diversity in Education > Horizons of Opportunities: Celebrating 50 Years of Brown v. Board of Education

Horizons of Opportunities:

Celebrating 50 Years of
Brown v. Board of Education
May 17, 1954-2004

>What led to the decision?
>What did the Supreme Court say in 1954?
>What has happened since then?
>Is school desegregation litigation still going on?
>Are schools today becoming "resegregated?"
>Why and what does NEA celebrate?


The Supreme Court half a century ago declared in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas  that racial segregation in public schools unconstitutionally deprives students of equal educational opportunities. This ruling paved the way for significant opportunities in our society—especially for equal justice, fairness, and education.

May 17, 2004 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Court's decision to desegregate America's public schools. We've kicked off our own celebration to raise awareness about the horizons of opportunities opened up by that decision and the continuing need to make real improvements in public education today that fulfill the promise of equal opportunity to a quality education and great schools for every child.

NEA believes there are societal and educational benefits in having racially diverse pre K-12 and college-level classrooms. For example, they...

  • help reduce stereotypes and prejudice;
  • offer students better opportunities for learning how to function in integrated environments;
  • promote cross-racial understanding;
  • help students appreciate the differing cultural viewpoints, skills, and values they encounter.

What did the U.S. Supreme Court say in 1954?

Separate is inherently unequal. 
"We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Look at but don't merely compare tangible objects. 
The Court looked at educational conditions of the segregated African American and white students in Clarendon (S.C.), New Castle (De.), and Prince Edward (Va.) counties, as well as in Topeka, Kansas and the District of Columbia. The findings were compiled for lower courts before reaching the Supreme Court. These conditions included:

  • teacher qualifications
  • pupil-teacher ratio
  • curricula
  • school buildings and facilities
  • transportation modes and travel time to and from school
  • extracurricular activities

Learning is hurt by segregation, racism, stereotypes, or reduced student achievement expectations. 
The Court found that the evils of racial segregation affected students’ motivation and retarded educational and mental development.  

The 2003 case of Grutter v. University of Michigan upheld the use of race in student law school admissions. Justice O'Connor restated the educational need to negate stereotypes:

". . . diminishing the force of such stereotypes is both a crucial part of the Law School's mission, and one that it cannot accomplish with only token numbers of minority students. Just as growing up in a particular region or having particular professional experiences is likely to affect an individual’s views, so too is one's own, unique experience of being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race unfortunately still matters."

Public education is an important government function.
The Court 50 years ago wrote:
"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

Justice O'Connor in the Grutter decision espoused the legacy of Brown:

"This Court has long recognized that 'education is the very foundation of good citizenship.' Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483, 493 (1954).  For this reason, the diffusion of knowledge and opportunity through public institutions of higher education must be accessible to all individuals regardless of race or ethnicity.  Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized."

Education is a right, not a privilege.
The Court wrote:  "In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he (or she) is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

What led to the decision?

  • Roberts v. The City of Boston (1850) is one of the first lawsuits challenging racial segregation in public schools. Robert Morris, one of the first African American attorneys and abolitionist Charles Sumner did not win their argument that segregated schools violated the state’s constitution. They did however set a precedent for later arguments — including ones by Thurgood Marshall — that such schools were unequal and carried stigmas of inferiority.

  • Tape v. Hurley is also still cited as precedent in racial quota lawsuits. Joseph C. Tape and his wife Mary McGladery in 1884 tried to enroll their daughter Mamie into San Francisco’s Spring Valley School, but the principal would not admit students of Chinese ancestry. A Superior Court Judge Jan. 9, 1885, wrote: “To deny a child, born of Chinese parents in this state, entrance to the public schools would be a violation of the law of the state and the Constitution of the United States.” March 3 of the same year, the California Supreme Court held that public education must be open to all children and invalidated the school's policy on racial segregation.

  • Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District (1931) was the first successful school desegregation court decision in U.S. history. It was decided that school districts could not separate Hispanics from other students and require them to attend separate schools. San Diego residents established their children's rights to equal education -- despite local, regional and national sentiment that favored segregation and deportation of Mexicans.

  • Seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, Mendez v. Westminster Board of Education ended school segregation in Orange County, Calif. and the rest of the state. There were separate schools for whites and Mexicans.

    Cases like this led the way for more legal victories. In Mendez, then California Justice Earl Warren ruled against racially segregated schools. NAACP's Thurgood Marshall filed a friend of the court brief and practiced legal arguments he later made in the 1954 Brown case.

  • Cases such as Gong Lum v. Rice involving students of Chinese descent challenged student classification and segregation along racial lines in public schools.

  • A string of higher education cases chipped away at racial segregation. In Sweatt v. Painter, the Supreme Court ruled that a segregated law school for African Americans could not provide them the equal educational opportunities guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution. McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, said an African American student must be treated like all other students, instead of for instance, being restricted to sitting in hallways outside of classes while white students sat inside classrooms.

By the end of the 19th century many states enacted laws mandating racial segregation in public schools. Some states established separate schools based on ethnicity. The default was to send any minority child to the black school.

By 1940, per pupil spending throughout many states with segregated schools was discernibly unequal:

 State  White  Black
Alabama  $34.25  $12.20
Arkansas  $23.93  $11.17
Florida  $51.96  $23.09
Georgia  $40.50  $13.92
Louisiana  $51.78  $14.93
Mississippi  $31.33  $6.64
North Carolina  $34.63  $23.60
South Carolina  $42.00  $13.81
Texas  $53.09  $29.36
Nine-state average  $40.39  $16.52

In 1954 17 of 48 states had laws that required racial segregation.

What has happened since 1954?

Massive resistance followed the decision. Rather than desegregate as ordered by the U. S. Supreme Court, some state governments defied the Court.

  • National Guard troops were called out in Little Rock, Arkansas to escort African American students, such as Ruby Bridges, into formerly all white schools.

  • The governor of Virginia closed public schools to thousands of students rather than desegregate. Public funds in the form of vouchers allowed white students to attend the private Prince Edward Academy rather than desegregate the schools in Prince Edward County -- where one of the Brown cases originated.

    This led members of the then all black American Teachers Association and NEA to donate time and money educating children in integrated "Free Schools." The organizations later merged.

  • More than 38,000 black educators in 17 states lost jobs between 1954 and 1965. Dr. Mildred Hudson of Recruiting New Teachers attributes losses to school closings and student/faculty integration.

  • NEA staff and members donated time and money to educate students, Black and white, in desegregated, makeshift classrooms.

  • Freedom of Choice schemes were used to circumvent desegregation. New York Times reporter Adam Cohen in his Jan. 18 article "The Supreme Struggle" said "Southern states adopted legal tactics to stall integration, notably ''freedom of choice'' plans. In theory, freedom of choice allowed blacks to attend any school in a district, but black parents were threatened with losing their jobs and homes -- and having crosses burned on their property -- if they tried to send their children to white schools."

  • The Supreme Court, clearly influenced by growing national support for civil rights, in 1968 the threw out ''freedom of choice'' in New Kent County, Va.

  • By 2004 38 states had major lawsuits that challenged systems where - were poor, often high-minority school districts received substantially fewer funds. Abbeville v. State (South Carolina) continues the arguments made in Briggs v. Elliott that was consolidated with Brown.

Is school desegregation litigation going on today?


  • All too often, court ordered school desegregation plans established under Brown are being set aside. Affected communities include Topeka, Kansas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Wilmington, Delaware; Miami/Dade, Lee, Hillsborough and other counties in Florida; public schools in Georgia; Cleveland, Ohio; and recently Prince Georges County, Maryland; Benton Harbor, Michigan; and Rockford, Illinois.

  • The Alabama Education Association and NEA supported litigation in Lee v. Macon is still under judicial review with court action ongoing. This complex desegregation case found disproportionately high numbers of African American students placed in special education -- supposedly reserved for physically or mentally challenged students with special needs. Disproportionately low numbers of African American students were in the state's gifted/talented programs.-

  • Fifty years after the landmark case, Brown’s legal arguments are being heard in the Kentucky case of McFarland, et al. v. Jefferson County Public Schools. At issue is whether a school district can use race to establish integrated learning environments and avoid racial isolation of its students. County schools operate on a “ managed choice” system that considers the following factors in making students’ school assignments: parent/student preference, student needs, school programs, school building size and capacity, and educational mission of the school district. Prior to “managed choice,” district schools operated under a 25-year old desegregation plan. The plan was dissolved when a court declared the school district was sufficiently integrated.

Are schools today becoming "resegregated?"


The Jim Crow system of segregation is legally dead but as NEA President Reg Weaver says, millions of students - African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaskan Natives still go to segregated schools and receive inferior education.

The NEA co-sponsored report "Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare?" (shows a rising rate of resegregation, since 1991, for many white, African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaskan Native students.

Whites are the most segregated -- on average, they attend schools that are 80% white. Just 14% of whites attend multi-racial schools. This report data is based on the 2001-02 school year.

Marked at birth
Before they're even born, poor and minority children risk doing poorly in school. Contributing factors include: rigorous curriculum, teacher preparation/experience/attendance, class size, technology-assisted instruction, school safety, parent participation, student mobility, birth weight, lead poising, nutrition. Check out Parsing the Achievement Gap (PDF, 42 pgs, 321K).

Disproportionately placed in remedial courses
Far more minorities take remedial courses. In 1994, 31% of black, 24% of Hispanic, and 35% of American Indian high school graduates took remedial courses, compared to 15% of whites and Asians.

Minority teachers needed
There are about 3 million teachers available to educate America's nearly 50 million school children. Only 14 percent of educators are minorities while the non-white children make up 40 percent of our school-age population.

Few minorities have access to or are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses

Student achievement gap still wide
With gains being made across the board, the gap is still wide.


Percent of fourth-grade students meeting national proficiency standards
1990 1992 1996
All students 13 18 21
Whites 16 23 28
Asians 23 30 26
Blacks 1 3 5
Hispanics 5 5 8
Native Americans 5 10 8









Percent of eighth-grade students meeting national proficiency standards
1990 1992 1996
All students 15 21 24
Whites 9 27 31
Asians 32 40  
Blacks 5 2 4
Hispanics 5 6 9
Native Americans 5 7 13









Why and what does NEA celebrate?

Brown also paved the way for 50 years worth of school integration and diversity as well as significant fairness and justice opportunities throughout our society.

We support scores of leading decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that shape school policies across the country.

Additionally, our entire organization is committed to realizing the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.






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