Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Judge Gerald A. Williams

North Valley Justice of the Peace

There are a handful of U.S. Supreme Court cases that every American should know by name.  On this list is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 

The term “historic” is often overused; but this case truly was historic. It was a unanimous decision. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of the attorneys in the case.  It is also remarkably short (nine pages) and is written is comparatively simple language so that more people had the opportunity to understand its’ meaning.         

Brown v. Board of Education was actually a consolidation of several cases arising out of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C. In each case, black students had been denied access to public schools based on local laws allowing education to be segregated by race. 

At the time, that was the law of the land based on a case called Plessy v. Ferguson. That case, which concerned railroad cars, held that racial segregation was acceptable as long as the facilities for black and whites were equal. This separate but equal doctrine was subsequently applied to public schools. 

Attorneys for minority students raised the question of whether the segregation of public education based solely on race violated the Equal Protect Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, concluded that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. 

Would the reasons for the ruling be different today? Most likely. Many of the current justices begin their analysis with the actual text of the Constitution. Chief Justice Warren did not.  Former Justice Antonin Scalia noted, “The text of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and in particular the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, can reasonably be thought to prohibit all laws designed to assert the separateness

[of one race]

, even those that purport to treat the races equally.”

In an important footnote to history, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a powerful dissent in

Plessy v. Ferguson: “In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights…I deny that any legislative body or judicial tribunal may have regard to the race of citizens when the civil rights of those citizens are involved.”

“The Thirteenth Amendment does not permit the withholding or the deprivation of any right necessarily inhering in freedom…It decreed universal civil freedom in this country. This court has so adjudged…it was followed by the Fourteenth Amendment, which added greatly to the dignity and glory of American citizenship, and to the security of personal liberty.”  

“These two amendments, if enforced according to their true intent and meaning, will protect all the civil rights that pertain to freedom and citizenship. These notable additions to the fundamental law were welcomed by the friends of liberty throughout the world.”

During Black History Month, there are often discussions or movies concerning Brown v. Board of Education. During such times, it is important to think about the beauty of our Constitution and how it resulted in such a case. Even so, we should remain thankful for both every day.  

Judge Gerald Williams is the Justice of the Peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.