Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka | US government and civics | Khan Academy


– [Kim] Hi, this is Kim from Khan Academy, and today we’re learning more about Brown v. Board
of Education of Topeka. Decided in 1954, Brown v.
Board was a landmark case that opened the door for desegregation and the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools for
white and black children, which had been prevalent
throughout the American South since the 1896 decision
in Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation, were
in fact inherently unequal. The named plaintiff in
this case, Oliver Brown, was the father of Linda, a third-grader who had to take a bus to a
segregated elementary school that was much farther from her home than the nearby school for white children. To learn more about the Brown case, I sought out the help of two experts. Theodore Shaw is the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law, and Director of the
Center for Civil Rights at the University of North
Carolina School of Law. Michael McConnell is the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor, and Director of the
Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School,
and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. So Prof. Shaw, could you just
kinda set the stage for us? What was the overall social
and political context behind this case? – [Prof. Shaw] Well Brown was
decided in the Cold War era. I think that’s important for
reasons that I’ll come back to. But it also was decided,
I guess it was 58 years after the Supreme Court
ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal railway
cars were constitutional. Of course that extended to all
walks of life in the South. And so what you had was
Jim Crow segregation sustained and set in place by law. And Brown was the case
that cracked the edifice of Jim Crow segregation. So, it was an enormously important case. It came after a long campaign by the NAACP Legal Defense
Fund to overturn Plessy. – [Kim] One thing that I
think is really confusing about Plessy v. Ferguson
is how it interacts with the 14th Amendment. So immediately after the Civil War, Congress passed, and the states
ratified, the 14th Amendment which gives equal protection
under the law to all citizens. But then Plessy v. Ferguson
just a couple decades later, legalizes segregation. Can you talk a little bit more about how the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment has
been interpreted in Plessy, and then later in Brown v. Board? – [Prof. McConnell] The
doctrine of separate but equal was itself a departure from
the prior understanding of what the 14th Amendment meant. In the immediate wake
of the 14th Amendment, segregation was understood
to be a violation of equal rights. The Congress of the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which prohibited mandatory segregation of among other things, railroads. Now that was struck down in 1883, I believe it was 1886, but for reasons not related to separate
but equal or segregation. But it’s only in the late 1880s and 1890s that states began passing
Jim Crow legislation, like the law in Plessy v. Ferguson. I think Plessy very
likely would’ve come out a different way, had it
come up 25 years earlier. It’s really very difficult to understand the logic of Plessy, because
Plessy takes the point of view that segregation is okay
because it treats everyone the same way, and the sense
of inferiority or insult that comes from segregation,
the court just ignored. You can read the opinion different ways, and people do and have read
the opinion different ways. A portion of the opinion makes it sound as though this is kind of
social science conclusion, that segregation breeds
a feeling of inferiority, that has a deleterious effect on the black students’
performance in school. – [Prof. Shaw] There’s a famous footnote in Brown v. Board of Education, Footnote 11 in which
some social scientists, and particularly Dr. Kenneth Clark, did a series of tests, the doll tests, in which they showed black and white dolls who were otherwise identical
to little children, little black children, and they
asked who was the good doll, who was the bad doll,
who was the pretty doll, who was the ugly doll. And the black children
would invariably choose the white dolls as the better dolls, and the black dolls as the inferior dolls. And then finally the bombshell question, which one looks like you? And they would stop and
choose the black doll, and many times, tears
would come to their eyes. And so this old notion of the inferiority that segregation imbued
in black school children was important, and the Supreme Court had some very eloquent
language about that. – [Prof. McConnell] Everyone
knew that the only reason to have laws requiring black
and white to be separate, was because of the feeling on the part of the dominant white group, that the African race was inferior. I think it was a failure
of political will really, rather than a matter of
constitutional or legal logic that led to that. And then it took almost 60 years before the Supreme Court
would turn itself around. – [Prof. Shaw] The late
A. Leon Higginbotham who sat on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, he used to say that Plessy was
wrong the day it was decided. And I believe he was right about that. If you go back and look at the rationale stated in Plessy, it didn’t hold up. It’s not an intellectually
honest decision, and having said that,
if you look at Brown, it really did not overrule
Plessy on its face with respect to segregation
and Jim Crow across the board. What it did was say that in
the field of public education, separate but equal is unconstitutional. Separate schools cannot be equal. And what followed Brown
was a series of cases in all kinds of areas in which the court sometimes without much of an opinion, cited Brown, but struck down
segregation in public libraries and public accommodations,
and transportation, et cetera. The case that settled
the long-running boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that
catapulted Martin Luther King into the national and world stage, it was decided, it was resolved finally. The boycott was important, but
it was resolved by this case that the Supreme Court
decided and had cited Brown. – [Kim] And so, Thurgood Marshall
and the Legal Defense Fund had kind of been chipping away
at the edges of segregation, and then they turned directly
to school segregation in the Brown cases. So what kind of arguments did they use to challenge the system
of school segregation? – [Prof. McConnell] Thurgood
Marshall and his co-council in the NAACP established
a very careful strategy of one case at a time, sort
of pushing the envelope of this idea that
segregation is inconsistent with demands of equal protection. And the interesting
thing about Brown itself, the case challenging
segregation in Topeka, Kansas, you know, why Topeka, Kansas? Why was this such an excellent
place to raise the challenge? And the reason is that
the schools in Topeka were very substantially equal in quality. In Topeka they actually
had integrated high schools and middle schools. It was only the elementary
schools that were segregated, and the District Court found, and the Supreme Court did not disagree that in terms of their
material advantages, the black school was
essentially just as good as the white school. And that’s why the NAACP
wanted to go after Topeka, because then it went to
the principle of the thing. You know it’s one thing
to attack segregation when separate but equal
is really just a fiction, but when separate but equal is a reality, at least pretty close to it, as in Topeka, you have to go after the actual principle that segregation is wrong in principle and not just wrong because
it tends most of the time to lead to material disadvantage. – [Prof. Shaw] Brown
was actually five cases. The Brown case itself
came from Topeka, Kansas. In many ways, the Supreme Court might’ve chosen to lead
with the Brown case because it wasn’t part of the South, and so in some ways it
might’ve been viewed as taking pressure off of the South. But there were five cases altogether. There was a case out of South Carolina, a case out of Virginia,
a case out of Delaware, a case out of Washington DC,
and then the Topeka case. And the Brown family was
actually not even the only family named Brown in the Topeka case. And the other Brown case
did not have their father available as the lead voice,
and they wanted a man, and so Oliver Brown
was the one they chose. They stipulated that the
schools were in fact equal in all respects, and
of course they weren’t. It was never possible to make
separate but equal, equal. But they stipulated that
these schools were equal, the black and the white schools, because they wanted the court to be able to, or to have
to, confront the issue of whether separate but equal
per se was unconstitutional. – [Kim] Interesting, so it’s this place where they’re hoping not to have a ruling that for example, oh the
schools for black children need to be brought up to code, to be the same as white children, but they’re trying to strike down the idea of segregation altogether. And indeed they rule unanimously that separate but equal
facilities are inherently unequal. – [Prof. McConnell] The
Supreme Court in Brown says well whatever may
have been the status of education as a civil right back then, back in the 19th century, by
now it surely is a civil right, and therefore there can
be no discrimination with regard to it. And one other thing that changed that I think the Supreme
Court doesn’t refer to, but many historians think
was surely in the back of their minds, has to do with
foreign policy of all things, that during this time the United States in the wake of World War II was playing a very major role in opposing colonialism, opposing communism, in
trying to spread the gospel of liberty around the world. And when we had segregation at home, this looked like rank hypocrisy. – [Prof. Shaw] This was
the Cold War period. These soldiers came home from
fighting a form of racism in Europe, Nazi Germany,
you know the Holocaust. And when they came back, they came back to segregated America. And there are many
stories that are painful about what their experiences were. But meanwhile the United States is having this Cold War
with the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was
exploiting this inconsistency in what America said it
was, and what it was. And though the Supreme Court
never said a word about that in the Brown cases, that
was very much context for that decision. – [Kim] So what did it
take for desegregation to really come about? Do you think we’ve achieved desegregation? – [Prof. Shaw] Yes and no. There was a long battle
to implement Brown, and in fact for the most part, Brown was not implemented
fully to the extent it ever was until the early 1970s when
the Supreme Court decided a case called Swann v.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina, and sanctioned the use of busing. – [Prof. McConnell] This does not depend upon what social scientists might think about how people do in school. This is a much more fundamental principle of equality under the law, that our law must treat
black and white the same, that for the government to
draw racial distinctions is fundamentally unequal,
and unconstitutional, and wrong, and unjust, fundamentally so and not just as a matter
of social science evidence. – [Prof. Shaw] I don’t
wanna sound despairing, you know, but I think if anybody looks at our public schools today,
and many of our communities, and our towns, and
cities, and our counties, we have to acknowledge honestly that there’s still a
great deal of segregation, and there are many schools
that are identifiably white, or identifiably black. And now Latinos, Hispanics, large degree of segregation there also. And even voluntary desegregation efforts have been found by the Supreme Court a few years ago to be
largely unconstitutional and illegal, and that’s tragic. But that doesn’t mean that
Brown wasn’t significant. I was born in the year of
Brown v. Board of Education. The America that I grew up in is a very different country
than the one that proceeded it. In spite of our flaws and our warts, no Brown v. Board of Education, no Civil Rights Movement, I would say. And ultimately no
desegregation of our society to the extent that we’ve accomplished it, and we have to a great
degree, and no Barack Obama. So I think Brown stands, as I said, as a dividing point in
America, but we can do better. – [Kim] So we’ve learned
that under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, and
the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the decision in Brown
v. Board of Education struck a major blow to
the system of segregation. After World War II, amidst
the ideological struggle of the Cold War, the
Supreme Court overturned the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, and ruled that segregated education constituted a violation of
the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. To learn more about Brown v. Board, visit the National Constitution Center’s interactive Constitution,
and Khan Academy’s resources on US government and politics.

11 thoughts on “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka | US government and civics | Khan Academy”

  1. the doll study used to justify this decision actually shows that desegregation exacerbated the feeling of inferiority that it was intended to ameliorate.

  2. I'm baffled people thought segregation was okay, especially after the Civil War. But I guess lots of people were still racist…

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