On May 17, 1954, Jim Crow was dealt a blow that would eventually lead to death. In a landmark decision the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the doctrine of “Separate but Equal”.

The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted after the Reconstruction period in Southern United States mandating de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern U.S. states. Jim Crow laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks.

In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law (the Separate Car Act) that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, a group of prominent black, creole, and white New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) dedicated to repeal the law. They eventually persuaded Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, to participate in an orchestrated test case.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket at the Press Street Depot and boarded a “whites only” car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound for Covington, Louisiana. The railroad company, which opposed the law on the grounds that it would require the purchase of more railcars, had been previously informed of Plessy’s racial lineage, and the intent to challenge the law. Additionally, the committee hired a private detective with arrest powers to detain Plessy, to ensure he was charged for violating the Separate Car Act, as opposed to a vagrancy or some other offense. After Plessy took a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it, and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately by the detective. As planned, the train was stopped, and Plessy was taken off the train at Press and Royal streets. Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish.

Eventually Plessy’s case would go all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 7 to 1 decision, Justice Henry Billings Brown delivered to majority opinion for the court, the court found that the Louisiana law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, and rejected the view that the law implied any inferiority of blacks. Instead, it contended that the law separated the two races as a matter of public policy. The doctrine of “Separate but Equal” was born.

Justice John Marshall Harlan, who decried the excesses of the Ku Klux Klan, wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court’s decision would become as infamous as that of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Following is part of Justice Harlan’s dissent, asserting, “The law regards man as man”:

“In view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

For the nearly the next sixty years, racial segregation was accepted and legally sound. Black Americans participated in both World Wars, served the country, but never gained the legal status equality that Jefferson so referred to in his 1776 address to the King of England.

Following World War II the United States and the Soviet Union were at the height of the Cold War, and US officials, including Supreme Court Justices, were highly aware of the negative effect that segregation and racism had on America’s international image. When Justice William O. Douglas traveled to India in 1950, the first question he was asked was, “Why does America tolerate the lynching of Negroes?” Douglas later wrote that he had learned from his travels that “the attitude of the United States toward its colored minorities is a powerful factor in our relations with India.”

In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their 20 children. The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. Brown’s daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile (1.6 km) away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was seven blocks from her house.

The case of Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the Supreme Court combined five cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.).

Thurgood Marshall, was the chief counsel for the NAACP, and argued the case before the Supreme Court. Marshall would later be appointed to the same court as the first black Justice. He argued that the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” was fundamentally wronged and was in opposition to, among other things, the U.S. Constitution.

What many do not remember is that this case was actually heard twice. In spring 1953, the Court heard the case but was unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953, with special attention to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks.

The Court reargued the case at the behest of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who used reargument as a stalling tactic, to allow the Court to gather a consensus around a Brown opinion that would outlaw segregation. The justices in support of desegregation spent much effort convincing those who initially intended to dissent to join a unanimous opinion. Although the legal effect would be same for a majority rather than unanimous decision, it was felt that dissent could be used by segregation supporters as a legitimizing counter-argument.

Conference notes and draft decisions illustrate the division of opinions before the decision was issued. Justices Douglas, Black, Burton, and Minton were predisposed to overturn Plessy. Fred M. Vinson noted that Congress had not issued desegregation legislation; Stanley F. Reed discussed incomplete cultural assimilation and states’ rights and was inclined to the view that segregation worked to the benefit of the African-American community; Tom C. Clark wrote that “we had led the states on to think segregation is OK and we should let them work it out.” Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson disapproved of segregation, but were also opposed to judicial activism and expressed concerns about the proposed decision’s enforceability. Chief Justice Vinson had been a key stumbling block. After Vinson died in September 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Warren had supported the integration of Mexican-American students in California school systems following Mendez v. Westminster. However, Eisenhower invited Earl Warren to a White House dinner, where the president told him: “These [southern whites] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court was packed with people anticipating the reading of the court’s decision. Even the justice’s wives appeared in the courtroom, as well as Justice Robert Jackson, who had suffered a heart attack and was not expected to return until June. Perhaps they were all gathered to witness what would be a significant historical event?

Chief Justice Warren began to read the Court’s ruling, which he had prepared himself, and as he spoke the audience began to hang on each word with anticipation. The Court’s written decision outlined the history of the argument and the law, but seemed to very short on a “ruling”. That was until the Chief Justice uttered the words that would forever strike a blow to segregation:

“ 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.”

The death of Jim Crow was not immediate. It was more like a slow moving cancer, that attacked the body of racial segregation from different places and eventually led to death. Over the course of the next decade racial disputes dominated American culture, and icons in the movement to equality were born. Eventually this led to Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court would continue to play a role in the years to come, but their courage to unanimously come together and remove the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” will forever stand as a sign to the country of what it means to follow our own ideals.


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