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Brown v. Board of Education:  61 Years Strong

It has been 61 years since the Supreme Court of the United States decided the landmark case of Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education. The importance of this case has not diminished in the least bit. As the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 2014 and as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 this year, the Brown case still takes center stage for being the catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement in this country — a movement that took 100 years to come to fruition and in many ways is still going on.

The Civil Rights Movement really began after the Civil War ended with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, wherein newly-freed African-Americans became citizens with equal protection of the law and freed black men could vote. Sadly, neither a war nor Constitutional amendments could abolish racism. Many states passed laws that mandated separation based on race in schools, housing, transportation and other institutions. They also passed laws making it hard for African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.

African-Americans challenged the constitutionality of these laws. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson, that segregating people on the basis of race did not violate the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment as long as they were treated equally. The “separate but equal” standard became the legal excuse for institutionalized racism.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established a legal team that began to fight the legality of the “separate but equal” practice. They began to win cases dealing with housing (Shelley v. Kraemer) and with graduate school education (Sweatt v. Painter and Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada). In fact, a number of Missouri’s black lawyers contributed to securing equal justice in some of those cases. But the NAACP knew the only way to have any real impact on segregation was to end it in public elementary and high schools—the heart of the nation’s educational system. They chose to argue the case of Linda Brown, a young African-American student in the Topeka, Kansas school district. Every day she had to walk through a dangerous railroad yard to get to the bus stop for the ride to the all-black school. She tried to get into the all-white school close to her house but was refused admittance because state law did not allow it. On May 17, 1954, in a 9-0 decision the U.S. Supreme Court held that “separate but equal” schools violated the 14th Amendment.

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“We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” —Chief Justice Earl Warren

I have been privileged to visit with school children throughout Missouri and I am happy to say that most of the students know about at least one court case—the Brown case. Indeed, this case should be something every American citizen knows about and appreciates for how it changed history.

Millie Aulbur is The Missouri Bar Director of Citizenship Education. Her primary work is developing materials and programs to assist and enhance the work of Missouri’s civics and government teachers.

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