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Inequality in Public Schools


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is considered the landmark case that ended the racial segregation in public schools across the United States of America and opened doors to a subsequent civil rights movement. The paper examines in detail the background of the situation in the US, including the Jim Crow era and the prerequisites that led to the anti-segregation movement. An overview of the early cases to end segregation is provided. The paper explains the specifics of the school system in Kansas, Topeka, and how it affected the Brown ruling’s resistance. Part of the paper is dedicated to the Southern Manifesto analysis and how racial segregation in schools continues to be a pressing issue in the modern United States.

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All children living in the United States of America have the constitutional right to equal educational opportunities. However, only 66 years ago, “liberty and justice for all” did not exist in the American school system where racial segregation thrived. The history course was changed on May 17, 1954, when the US Supreme Court “ruled unanimously (9–0) that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution” (Duignan, 2020, para. 1). The ruling paved the way for the civil rights movement in the US in the following years and put in motion the lengthy process of racial integration and equality. The purpose of this paper is to look in detail at the background of the case, the early cases to stop inequality in public schools, and the impact of the decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka on the school system in the US today.

Slavery, Segregation and School System before 1954

The history of slavery and racial segregation started in the US in the 17th century. In 1619, a year before the Mayflower, the first 20 African slaves were brought by a Dutch ship to the shores of the new British colonies (Shah & Adolphe, 2019). Since that moment, the country was divided into two parts, and for years, historians, politicians, and country leaders “would prefer to sort of imagining the United States as a kind of mythic, Anglo-Saxon Christian place” (Shah & Adolphe, 2019, para. 3). In the following decades, slavery flourished in the US, banning African Americans from getting any kind of education as it was considered a threat to the whole system itself. It was not until 1865 that the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the US and served as a ray of hope for many African Americans for future freedoms and education.

Jim Crow Era

Even though slavery was abolished, the way of life in most states remained the same. Several new laws were introduced to maintain racial segregation and separate white people and people of color not only in schools but across all the spheres of everyday life. Named after a black minstrel character, “Jim Crow” became a segregation name and a derogatory term for all African Americans. Subsequently, the white supremacy laws adopted in 1877 started to bear that name as well. According to these laws, any person of color or suspected of having any black ancestry was separated from the whites. The segregation laws did not allow African America’s visit parks, theaters, cafes, or be buried at the cemeteries, intended for the white population only (Urofsky, 2020). The segregation laws were implemented in the school system to separate educational institutions for white and black children. Apart from that, white schools received more funding and were less crowded and equipped with far better amenities than the schools for black children. Some states even instructed the schools to provide different learning materials and coursebooks for black and white students (“Jim Crow Laws,” 2020). The era of Jim Crow was the time when many African Americans started the fight against oppression and segregation.

One of the most prominent activists of that time was Ida B. Wells. A teacher and a newspaper writer advocating for the end of Jim Crow’s laws, she became “a co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and used her position to take on school segregation” (“Jim Crow Laws,” 2020, para. 18). However, the road to freedom and the end of racial segregation in schools as well as in all parts of life was still long.

Plessy v. Ferguson

One of the most significant events directly linked to the future Brown v. Board of Education case was the day when Homer Plessy, who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black, boarded a whites-only train car in New Orleans. Plessy was a member of one of the New Orleans civil rights groups and decided to participate in this act of civil rebellion (Rifkin, 2020). This train ride had enormous historical implications, and eventually, the case of Plessy went before the U. S. Supreme Court. However, on May 18, 1896, “the justices, eight white men of privilege, ruled against Plessy, 7–1” (Rifkin, 2020, para.17). This decision became a definition of the Jim Crow era, constitutionally upholding the racial segregation of whites and blacks, known as separate but equal doctrine (Rifkin, 2020). This ruling also put a hold on the integration of the school system claiming that the segregation of public education is entirely constitutional.

Specifics of Schools in Black Topeka

While the schools for black students in the South suffered from the lack of funding amidst the full swing of Jim Crow laws, the school system in Topeka, Kansas, was quite different. The city of Topeka was also segregated like the rest of the country; however, the black community thrived there. From teachers to shop owners, from pastors to lawyers, from doctors to nurses, many African American citizens of Topeka in the 1880s and 1890s were highly respected and prominent members of the city (Lutz, 2017). Many black teachers in Topeka were content with the segregated school system as they believed that it was more beneficial for black students to attend schools where they were welcomed and safe. Many also supported this idea assuming the African American children would receive a better education if taught and cared for by teachers who were also African Americans and, thus, knew all the specifics of the upbringing and learning within their own race (Lutz, 2017). It is also worth mentioning that schools for blacks in Topeka were well funded and had an excellent teaching staff.

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NAACP and Early Cases Against School Segregation

However, even taking into account all the good Topeka had to offer the black community, segregation still existed there. Although many black schools in Topeka superseded white schools in terms of funding and amenities, the racial prejudices kept many African Americans in inferior positions in the field of education (Lutz, 2017). The fight against public school segregation continued in the 1899 case of Cummings v. Richmond (Ga) County Board of Education. The court “refused to issue an injunction preventing a school board from spending tax money on a white high school when it voted to close down a black high school for financial reasons” (United States Courts, n. d., para. 5). In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established to continue the legal fight against racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws. In its early years, NAACP was primarily focused on making Congress legally prohibit lynching and other forms of racial discrimination.

Since the 1930s, a prominent civil rights attorney and the founder of the NASSCP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) concentrated on fighting the cases where African Americans’ educational freedoms were restricted. In the case of Murray v. Maryland (1936), Marshal challenged the practice of rejecting black applicants to the University of Baltimore School of Law (United States Courts, n. d.). A similar case was that of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), when a black applicant to the University of Missouri Law School was rejected because of his race (United States Courts, n. d.). Sweat v. Painter (1950), like the Murray and Gaines case, was fighting the admission of a black student to a “white” law school at the University of Texas. All these cases legally challenged the racial discrimination and “separate but equal doctrine” in higher education and were successfully won by the NAACP and Marshall.

The End of Segregation in Public Schools

Despite some progress, several cases fighting the constitutionality of segregation in public schools went in front of judges in different states and were turned down, ruling in favor of the school boards. However, the “longstanding legal construct that public schooling for African-American children would only be possible in racially segregated schools was dismantled by the Brown decision” (Henderson & Brown, 2016, p. 413). The landmark case known as Brown v. Board was a consolidation of 5 separate cases with the same issue – the legality of racial segregation in public schools. These cases were Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.), Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel (United States Courts, n. d.). NAACP and Thurgood Marshall filed lawsuits on behalf of African American students who were denied admission to the “all-white” public schools a couple of years before 1954.

In three of these cases (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County), the decision was made based on Plessy. The judges ruled that the claimants had been provided equal educational opportunities since the schools they attended complied with all the requirements and were comparable to the all-white schools (Duignan, 2020). The NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, along with the plaintiffs, were not satisfied with the ruling. Therefore, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, as a consolidation of all five cases, went in front of the Supreme Court in 1952. The main issue argued by Marshall was that separate school systems for black and white children “violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution” (United States Courts, n. d., para. 13). Besides, he used the data from social scientists’ sociological tests, proving that black children in segregated schools felt inferior to white children. In return, this factor undermines the desire to learn and, thus, deprives African American children of the constitutional right to equal educational opportunities.

Although most of the judges were ready to reverse Plessy, they were still deeply divided and unable to come to a common solution. Thus, the hearing of the Brown v. Board of Education case was moved again to December 1953. At that time, the Supreme Court judge, Governor Earl Warren of California, made a historical step of uniting all the Justices to come to a unanimous verdict of the case and to declare the racial division in public schools unconstitutional (United States Courts, n. d.). This decision was groundbreaking and marked a turning point in the American history of race relations.

Resistance to Desegregating Public Schools

After the famous and long-awaited ruling in the Brown v. Board of education to stop racial segregation in public schools, the US witnessed an unprecedented resistance to the decision. The southern states, local and federal governments were not ready for such a drastic change. If before Brown, about 82,000 black teachers supported the segregation, after the ruling, that number decreased drastically (Lutz, 2017). One of the reasons for such a decrease is that many black teachers feared that segregation would lead to significant job losses. Black teachers also felt “protective toward their students and wanted them to receive the best education possible— something black students would likely not have received from many white teachers in an integrated school system” (Lutz, 2017, para. 17). The parents felt that their children would lose their role models since no white teacher could understand African American identity.

Many African Americans, parents and teachers alike, understood that overwhelmingly the change was necessary; however, not everyone was ready to pay the price of this change. Many middle and upper-class African American families preferred to keep their black schools and communities intact. One of the most prominent members of the opposing teaching force was Mamie Williams, a dedicated teacher in Topeka, Kansas. Ms. Williams was famous not only in the African American circle but in the whole city as a female teacher who refused to get married to forego her career as a teacher. Instead, she dedicated her entire life to education, and even though she resisted the prospective racial segregation, her beliefs were not conclusive. When called to testify in the case of Graham v. Board of Education of Topeka, Ms. Williams voiced the concern of many that integrating the black and white schools would almost certainly result in many African American teachers losing their employment (Lutz, 2017). Thus, like many other African American educators of Topeka, Williams resisted the prospect of integration; however, she paid more attention to protecting the careers of her fellow colleagues.

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Notwithstanding that most African American teachers resisted the decision, many understood that desegregation is a step forward for the whole nation to equality and justice, as proclaimed in the Constitution. Several months after the Brown decision, there was a Conference of Southern Negro Educators held in Hot Springs, Arkansas (Lutz, 2017). The result of the Conference was a joint decision of the educators that their social position as teachers was superior to their race as African Americans (Lutz, 2017). Therefore, the desire for racial equality triumphed over the importance of a secure job and a paycheck for many.

Southern Manifesto

As it was anticipated before, the Brown decision resulted in massive losses of employment of African American educators. Statistics show that “between 1954 and 1972 more than 31,000 black teachers lost their jobs, and thousands of principals lost theirs as well” (Lutz, 2017, para. 19). Mass discontent led to the creation of the so-called “Southern Manifesto,” often referred to as the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” in 1956, introduced in the US Congress (Henderson & Brown, 2016). According to the Manifesto, the parents were to be given the ability to choose whether to send their children to segregated schools or not.

The freedom of choice was presented as the main objective of the Declaration of Constitutional Principles. As Henderson and Brown (2016) outline, “the goals of manifesto supporters were to convince the Supreme Court to reverse its decision, to minimize implementation of the Brown, and forestall school integration by all possible means” (p. 413). After the Southern Manifesto was presented at the Senate, it was supported by “82 Representatives and 19 Senators from the states that had once composed the Confederacy – roughly one-fifth of the membership of Congress” (Henderson & Brown, 2016, p. 413). The ruling in the Brown case was interpreted as an illegal misuse of legal authority (Henderson & Brown, 2016). Until now, the discussions of whether Brown was decided correctly are ongoing. According to Turner (2020), “a number of President Trump’s nominees for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench have refused to answer the Brown query” (p. 41). One of the reasons is that many nominees fear that expressing new opinions on the Brown decision’s correctness would question other Supreme Court decisions. Others think that verifying the ruling’s legal conformity might be a sign of a step back in the lengthy process of fighting racial segregation.

Racial Segregation Today

Brown v. Board of education’s landmark decision without a shadow of a doubt set in motion the progress of racial desegregation in the public school system. However, many people think that the main objective of the ruling has not been reached until today. According to the recent data, “the number of high-poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014” (Strauss, 2016, para. 1). There are presently several civil groups that still try to overturn the Brown decision and advocate for freedom of choice when it comes to racial separation of schools in the US (Henderson & Brown, 2016). Strauss (2016) notes that the government imposes policies to segregate the neighborhoods on a racial basis in every state and metropolitan area of the US. Therefore, schools’ segregation exists because the communities in most cities are still segregated. However, the majority believe that, to a large extent, racial discrimination nowadays is a result of unequal funding of minority schools.


Years ago, it was illegal for African Americans to sit at a white-only counter or ride in a white-only train car. The situation changed when Brown v. Board of Education ended racial segregation. This landmark decision undoubtedly let many African American children get closer to the equality that the US Constitution promises to every American citizen. However, it would be unfair to say that the racial segregation in schools across the US has ended since race is built into the American DNA. Therefore, the government is to continue improving the public-school system by providing the fundamental and inherent right to equal education to every citizen, irrespective of their skin color and race.


Brown Henderson, C., & Brown. S. M. (2016). The Southern manifesto: A doctrine of resistance 60 years later. Journal of School Choice, 10(4), 412–419. Web.

Duignan, B. (2020). Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Britannica. Web.

Jim Crow Laws. (2020). Web.

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Lutz, M. (2017). The hidden cost of Brown v. Board: African American educators’ resistance to desegregating schools. Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy, 12(4). Web.

Rifkin, G. (2020). Overlooked no more: Homer Plessy, who sat on a train and stood up for civil rights. The New York Times. Web.

Shah, K., & Adolphe, J. (2019). 400 years since slavery: a timeline of American history. The Guardian. Web.

Strauss, V. (2016). The reason America’s schools are so segregated – and the only way to fix it. The Washington Post. Web.

Turner, R. (2020). Was Brown v. Board of Education correctly decided? Maryland Law Review, 79, 41–60. Web.

Urofsky, M. (2020). Jim Craw law. Britannica. Web.

United States Courts. (n. d.). History – Brown v. Board of Education re-enactment. Web.

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