The modern Civil Rights Movement, or as it needs to be known, the “Second Reconstruction,” was led in part by black children. That is because the battle ground for equal rights centered around public schools. That meant that black children were on the front line of the battle over equal rights.
Today’s post is about the case of “Brown v. Board of Education” and the role that school desegration played in the restructuring of American society and the beginnings of the Second Reconstruction movement. Children were at the forefront of this monumental shift in a legal-cultural change.
Black children have always been both victims and heroes of the fight for Civil Rights. We can recall the famous black young people who in the aftermath of Brown, bravely entered the Arkansas High School in 1957 under threat of violence, racial slurs and intimidation from angry whites.
Called the "Little Rock Nine", they were Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals. Ernest Green was the first African American to graduate from Central High School. Yes, say their names.
Or, we can remember the four little girls that were killed in the 1963 Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. Yes, say their names. They are heroes, and unfortunately, martyrs.
But nothing outraged white supremacists more than the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation. Black children were again leading the charge to gain equal rights, which had been guaranteed to them in the Constitution, but denied to them through white supremacist exploitation. The time had come for the children to lead them.
Plessy v. Ferguson 1896
The whole southern Jim Crow segregationist infrastructure was given a Supreme Court mandate in the landmark decison of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The issue at stake was the Louisiana “separate car act” which required separate railway cars for blacks and whites.
In 1892, Homer Plessy – who was seven-eighths Caucasian – agreed to participate in a test to challenge the Act. He was solicited by the Comite des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), a group of New Orleans residents who sought to repeal the Act. They asked Plessy, who was technically black under Louisiana law, to sit in a "whites only" car of a Louisiana train.
Plessy sat down in a “whites-only” railroad car and was told to vacate the car, he refused and was arrested. At trial, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The judge found that Louisiana could enforce this law insofar as it affected railroads within its boundaries. Plessy was convicted.
When the case was referred to the Supreme Court of the United States, the Court ruled that the protections of 14th Amendment applied only to political and civil rights (like voting and jury service), not “social rights” (sitting in the railroad car of your choice). This immediately became a gateway to complete and total segregation within all southern institutions, including public schools.
In its ruling, the Court denied that segregated railroad cars for Black people were necessarily inferior.
“We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’s] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” Justice Henry Brown
In other words, the Supreme Court blamed Plessy, a 1/8 black man, for feeling inferior, and not because he was forced to set in an inferior railroad car. The black railroad car wasn’t equal to the white one, but the Court assumed that separate but equal would impose no damage on the black person.
The “separate but equal” doctrine held up in court until 1954. Black lawyers, parents and children would challenge the obvious inequities of this doctrine and forever change the nature of American society.
The “Doll Test” 1940s
Lawyers in the Brown case argued that separate was not equal, but actually promoted inequality. As common-sense as this might be today, it was revolutionary in the 1950’s.
In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.
Drs. Clark used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Their subjects, children between the ages of three to seven, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they prefer.
A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem.
The doll test was only one part of Dr. Clark’s testimony in Brown vs. Board – His conclusions during his testimony were based on a comprehensive analysis of the most cutting-edge psychology scholarship of the period.
The Supreme Court cited Clark’s 1950 paper in its Brown decision and acknowledged it implicitly in the following passage:
“To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Dr. Kenneth Clark was dismayed that the court failed to cite two other conclusions he had reached: that racism was an inherently American institution and that school segregation inhibited the development of white children, too. Segragation not only harmed black children, but also was an impediment to the development of white children. This was revolutionary!
Brown v. Board of Education 1954
Ethel Brown was born with a heart condition. But, because she was Black, she had no choice but to travel 20 miles each day to attend Howard High School, the only public high school in the state of Delaware that admitted Black students in 1950. Her mother, concerned about Ethel’s ability to make the trip, petitioned the school board to allow Ethel to attend the nearby Claymont High School, which was reserved for white students. Her request was denied.
Despite Ethel’s status as a young girl with a severe medical condition, Ethel was treated as unworthy of any protection simply because of her race. Fed up, Mrs. Brown joined a group of Black parents bringing a lawsuit, Belton v. Gebhart, in one of the five cases that eventually became Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark Supreme Court case litigated by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF) that ended segregation by law in American public schools.
Equal access to public education meant that white people….
must admit and accept that blacks and whites are equal, politically and socially,
are not inherently superior,
accept that the mixing of races will not deterimentally harm white kids,
accept that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applied to blacks as well as whties,
accept that there could be a possibility that black kids might out perform white kids academically, athletically, politically,
accept that a black student might some day rise to the level of being President of the United States,
accept that race is strictly a social construct, not a biological difference,
accept that interracial marriage might be acceptable,
accept that black children are just as intelligent and capable as white children,
accept that the assumptions and prejudices that they have held for generations are fabrications of their imagination,
yes, this was an existential crisis, but only in the minds of white supremeacist nightmares.
In the early 1950s, NAACP lawyers brought class action lawsuits on behalf of black schoolchildren and their families in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, seeking court orders to compel school districts to let black students attend white public schools.
One of these class actions, Brown v. Board of Education was filed against the Topeka, Kansas school board by representative-plaintiff Oliver Brown, parent of one of the children denied access to Topeka’s white schools.
Brown claimed that Topeka’s racial segregation violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because the city’s black and white schools were not equal to each other and never could be. The federal district court dismissed his claim, ruling that the segregated public schools were “substantially” equal enough to be constitutional under the Plessy doctrine. Brown appealed to the Supreme Court, which consolidated and then reviewed all the school segregation actions together.
Thurgood Marshall was the chief counsel for the plaintiffs. Under his leadership the plaintiffs won their argument in a unanimous decision. Marshall would go on to later become the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967.
The decision held that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Public education in the 20th century, said the Court, had become an essential component of a citizen’s public life, forming the basis of democratic citizenship, normal socialization, and professional training. In this context, any child denied a good education would be unlikely to succeed in life. Where a state, therefore, has undertaken to provide universal education, such education becomes a right that must be afforded equally to both blacks and whites.
One of the considerations the court considered was the psychological impact of segregation based on the Doll studies. The Court concluded that separating children on the basis of race creates dangerous inferiority complexes that may adversely affect black children’s ability to learn. The Court concluded that, even if the tangible facilities were equal between the black and white schools, racial segregation in schools is “inherently unequal” and is thus always unconstitutional.
Opposition To The Brown Decision
The Brown decision was the opening victory of the Second Reconstruction period from 1954 to 1968. White supremacists vowed to fight and oppose court-ordered integration in every way possible…and they are still fighting it. The tactics change depending on the circumstances, but they are still opposed to giving full inclusion to black citizens.
Here is the vital truth that we need to include in school curriculum or at home. We are not finished fighting for the 14th Amendment and ending segregation. It is an ongoing fight.
White supremacists are trying to undo the successes of the Second Reconstruction in the following ways:
Attack the validity of the 14th Amendment. Extremists, neo-Confederates are questioning the Constitutional amendment that gave blacks citizenship
Install conservative, white supremacist judges. Donald Trump was able in 4 years to appoint a third of both the federal judiciary and a third of the Supreme Court. It isn’t clear how strong these judges will protect the Brown decision.
Silence the story of equal protection by removing it from school curriculum. Texas passed a bill to do just this thing in 2021.
Ban books that include stories of civil rights leaders, women’s suffrage, and native American history.
This is happening right here in Iowa as well. This discussion of the Brown decision is more relevant than one might think. Unless we teach the truth about Brown and other aspects of Black history, they will be silenced. Raise your voice. Make no mistake, our children are still on the front lines.
Closing video…it is still happening…
I love that meme of Ruby Bridges "If this child was strong enough to go through this, your child is strong enough to learn about it."