For most of the ninety years1 preceding the Brown case, race relations in the U.S. had been dominated by racial segregation. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were "equal," the segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment ("no state shall... deny to any person... the equal protection of the laws.")
The plaintiffs in Brown2 asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but relatively equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 that prohibited it. Brown was influenced by UNESCO's 19503 Statement, signed by a wide variety of internationally renowned scholars, titled The Race Question. This declaration denounced previous attempts at scientifically justifying racism as well as morally condemning racism. Another work that the Supreme Court cited was Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration.
Brown is undoubtedly the most famous of a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that dealt principally with the efforts of civil rights activists to promote the interests of the people they represented.
Brown v. Board of Education:
In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their twenty children. The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by the Topeka Board of Education under an 1879 Kansas law, which permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in twelve communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been recruited by the leadership of the Topeka NAACP. Notable among the Topeka NAACP leaders were the chairman McKinley Burnett; Charles Scott, one of three serving as legal counsel for the chapter; and Lucinda Todd.
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The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. Brown had initially contacted Topeka attorney William Everett Glenn, Sr. about his concerns regarding "separate but equal" policies of Topeka schools. Attorney Glenn referred him to the local Topeka NAACP chapter. He was convinced to join the lawsuit by Scott, a childhood friend. Brown's daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk twenty one blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile (1.6 km) away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was only seven blocks from her house.
As directed by the NAACP leadership, the parents each attempted to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools. Linda Brown Thompson later recalled the experience in a 2004 PBS documentary:
. . . well. like I say, we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out . . . to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice rose, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn't understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.
The Kansas case, "Oliver Brown et al v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas," was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster. Also, it was felt by lawyers with the National Chapter of the NAACP, that having Mr. Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices because Mr. Brown had an intact, complete family, as opposed to someone who was a single parent head of household. The thirteen plaintiffs were: Oliver Brown, Darlene Brown, Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emerson, Shirley Fleming, Zelma Henderson, Shirley Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson, and Lucinda Todd.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which had upheld a state law requiring "separate but equal" segregated facilities for blacks and whites in railway cars. The three-judge District Court found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect upon negro children, but denied relief on the ground that the negro and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational qualifications of teachers.