v. Board of Education
May 17, 1954
BROWN ET AL. v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA ET AL.
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
Segregation of white and Negro children in the public
schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws
permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal
protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment -- even though the
physical facilities and other "tangible" factors of white and Negro
schools may be equal.
- (a) The history of the Fourteenth Amendment is
inconclusive as to its intended effect on public education.
- (b) The question presented in these cases must be
determined not on the basis of conditions existing when the Fourteenth
Amendment was adopted, but in the light of the full development of public
education and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.
- (c) Where a State has undertaken to provide an
opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a
right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
- (d) Segregation of children in public schools solely on
the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal
educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other
"tangible" factors may be equal.
- (e) The "separate but equal" doctrine adopted
in Plessy v. Ferguson, has no place in the field of public education.
- (f) The cases are restored to the docket for further
argument on specified questions relating to the forms of the decrees.
OPINION OF THE COURT
delivered by Mr. Chief Justice Warren
These cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South
Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. They are premised on different facts and
different local conditions, but a common legal question justifies their
consideration together in this consolidated opinion [347 U.S. 483, 487].
In each of the cases, minors of the Negro race, through
their legal representatives, seek the aid of the courts in obtaining admission
to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis. In each
instance, [347 U.S. 483, 488] they had been denied admission to schools attended
by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to
race. This segregation was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal
protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. In each of the cases
other than the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court denied relief
to the plaintiffs on the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine
announced by this Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Under that doctrine, equality of
treatment is accorded when the races are provided substantially equal
facilities, even though these facilities be separate. In the Delaware case, the
Supreme Court of Delaware adhered to that doctrine, but ordered that the
plaintiffs be admitted to the white schools because of their superiority to the
The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are
not "equal" and cannot be made "equal," and that hence they
are deprived of the equal protection of the laws. Because of the obvious
importance of the question presented, the Court took jurisdiction. Argument was
heard in the 1952 Term, and reargument was heard this Term on certain questions
propounded by the Court [347 U.S. 483, 489].
Reargument was largely devoted to the circumstances
surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It covered
exhaustively consideration of the Amendment in Congress, ratification by the
states, then existing practices in racial segregation, and the views of
proponents and opponents of the Amendment. This discussion and our own
investigation convince us that, although these sources cast some light, it is
not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced. At best, they are
inconclusive. The most avid proponents of the post-War Amendments undoubtedly
intended them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons born or
naturalized in the United States." Their opponents, just as certainly, were
antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wished them
to have the most limited effect. What others in Congress and the state
legislatures had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.
An additional reason for the inconclusive nature of the
Amendment's history, with respect to segregated schools, is the status of public
education at that time. In the South, the movement toward free common schools,
supported [347 U.S. 483, 490] by general taxation, had not yet taken hold.
Education of white children was largely in the hands of private groups.
Education of Negroes was almost nonexistent, and practically all of the race
were illiterate. In fact, any education of Negroes was forbidden by law in some
states. Today, in contrast, many Negroes have achieved outstanding success in
the arts and sciences as well as in the business and professional world. It is
true that public school education at the time of the Amendment had advanced
further in the North, but the effect of the Amendment on Northern States was
generally ignored in the congressional debates. Even in the North, the
conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The
curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas;
the school term was but three months a year in many states; and compulsory
school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence, it is not surprising
that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment
relating to its intended effect on public education.
In the first cases in this Court construing the Fourteenth
Amendment, decided shortly after its adoption, the Court interpreted it as
proscribing all state-imposed discriminations against the Negro race. The
doctrine of [347 U.S. 483, 491] "separate but equal" did not make its
appearance in this Court until 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, supra,
involving not education but transportation. American courts have since labored
with the doctrine for over half a century. In this Court, there have been six
cases involving the "separate but equal" doctrine in the field of
public education. In Cumming v. County Board of Education, and Gong Lum v. Rice,
the validity of the doctrine itself was not challenged. In more recent cases,
all on the graduate school [347 U.S. 483, 492] level, inequality was found in
that specific benefits enjoyed by white students were denied to Negro students
of the same educational qualifications. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada,
Sipuel v. Oklahoma, Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents. In
none of these cases was it necessary to re-examine the doctrine to grant relief
to the Negro plaintiff. And in Sweatt v. Painter, supra, the Court expressly
reserved decision on the question whether Plessy v. Ferguson should be held
inapplicable to public education.
In the instant cases, that question is directly presented.
Here, unlike Sweatt v. Painter, there are findings below that the Negro and
white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect
to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other
"tangible" factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a
comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in
each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on
In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back
to 1868 when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson
was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full
development and its present place in American life throughout [347 U.S. 483,
493] the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public
schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of
state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great
expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of
education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our
most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the
very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in
awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional
training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these
days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in
life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where
the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available
to all on equal terms.
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation
of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the
physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive
the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We
believe that it does.
In Sweatt v. Painter, supra, in finding that a segregated
law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities,
this Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of
objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." In
McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, supra, the Court, in requiring that a Negro
admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again
resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study, to
engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general,
to learn his profession." [347 U.S. 483, 494] Such considerations apply
with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them 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. The effect of this
separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in
the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the
"Segregation of white and colored children in public
schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is
greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the
races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A
sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation
with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational
and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the
benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."
Whatever may have been the extent of psychological
knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by
modern authority. Any language [347 U.S. 483, 495] in Plessy v. Ferguson
contrary to this finding is rejected.
We conclude that in the field of public education the
doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational
facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and
others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason
of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws
guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any
discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the
Because these are class actions, because of the wide
applicability of this decision, and because of the great variety of local
conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases presents problems of
considerable complexity. On reargument, the consideration of appropriate relief
was necessarily subordinated to the primary question - the constitutionality of
segregation in public education. We have now announced that such segregation is
a denial of the equal protection of the laws. In order that we may have the full
assistance of the parties in formulating decrees, the cases will be restored to
the docket, and the parties are requested to present further argument on
Questions 4 and 5 previously propounded by the Court for the reargument this
Term. The Attorney General [347 U.S. 483, 496] of the United States is again
invited to participate. The Attorneys General of the states requiring or
permitting segregation in public education will also be permitted to appear as
amici curiae upon request to do so by September 15, 1954, and submission of
briefs by October 1, 1954.
It is so ordered.