On this day in 1954, 60 years ago,the US Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The decision declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, striking down the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ segregation which had been in place since the 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson. The Brown case had been bought by African-American parents, including Oliver L. Brown, against Topeka’s educational segregation. It was argued before the Court by the chief legal counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967.
The Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared that segregation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Warren Court went on to make a name for itself as a Court that issued some of the most significant rulings in modern American history. Its critics slammed it as a liberal/activist Court, whereas its supporters hailed these decisions. They included Gideon v. Wainright (1963) – the right to a state-provided attorney if you could not afford one; Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) – the right to privacy and to use contraception; Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – the right to be informed of your constitutional rights upon arrest; Loving v. Virginia (1967) – the right to interracial marriage; and the enduringly controversial Engel v. Vitale (1962) which banned school prayer.
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”
– Warren’s opinion for the Court
The landmark decision is often considered the start of the Civil Rights Movement, which fought for racial integration and full equality for African-Americans. The Brown decision, and escalation of the nonviolent equality movement, provoked considerable opposition in both the Northern and Southern states, which Southern schools in particular refusing to integrate, and nation-wide violence against protestors. Despite these barriers, the Movement transformed American society, leading to the end of legal segregation and landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).
However the mission of the movement, so eloquently expressed by Dr. King, to achieve full equality, is far from over. 60 years on from Brown, it is a time for reflection on how far America has come since this landmark ruling. Great progress has undoubtedly been made, the very fact that America’s current President is an African-American is testament to this, as it would have been inconceivable 60 years ago. But this does not mean that America is a free and equal society, far from it. African-Americans remain disadvantaged, with a disproportionate number incarcerated or living below the poverty line, and cases like the murder of Trayvon Martin demonstrate that racial violence is by no means a thing of the past. The Civil Rights Movement, I would argue, has also evolved to encompass more than African-American rights. The Movement lives on today in the fight for marriage equality in the United States, in the struggle for more humane immigration policies, and in the post-9/11 world where Muslims are often wrongly branded as terrorist extremists. We must also beware of letting the achievements of the movement be endangered. The Supreme Court recently struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, and Voter ID laws in some states disadvantage minorities when it comes to voting. America and the wider world has thus come a long way since Brown and is a better world thanks to the Warren Court’s decision, but we are far from becoming a perfect world.