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People & Events: Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Charles H. HoustonWith the words "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," the U.S. Supreme Court reversed more than a half century of legalized segregation. The landmark case was Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954.

Oliver and Linda Brown
The case was named after Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas, an African American man whose daughter Linda faced a long commute to school every day. Linda had been denied admission to an all-white, neighborhood school just five blocks from her home. The case became a class action suit involving five states, consolidated under Brown once they reached the Supreme Court. The two lead attorneys were Charles H. Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the architects of the NAACP's legal strategies. Marshall would later become the nation's first African American Supreme Court Justice.

The Court's Opinion
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion read on May 17, 1954. The Court's language incorporated some of the main points argued by African Americans, that segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone."

Calling Card for a New Era
Thurgood MarshallAfrican Americans took the decision as a calling card for a new era of progress and opportunity. Grass roots organizations gained momentum and membership. More blacks registered to vote. Membership in the NAACP soared, especially in northern cities, and foot soldiers for the organization gained the confidence and audacity to set up field offices in the South. Black veterans of World War II, disappointed to find Jim Crow brutally staring them in the face, were hopeful the Supreme Court decision would bring in a tide of change, if not for them, then for their children.

Segregationist Opposition
Most of the South remained vehemently opposed. In Mississippi, considered by many to be the most staunchly segregationist southern state, the response was swift and vitriolic. An editorial in the Jackson Daily News called the decision "the worst thing that has happened to the South since carpetbaggers and scalawags took charge of our civil government in reconstruction days," and said it would lead to "racial strife of the bitterest sort." The Daily News joined all major elected officials in Mississippi in a vow to fight the decision. "Even though it was delivered by a unanimous vote of the nine members of the nation's highest tribunal," the editorial read, "Mississippi cannot and will not try to abide by such a decision."

The Summer of 1955
One year after the Brown decision, in 1955, many whites in the Deep South remained determined to block its implementation. It was an election year in Mississippi, and politicians used their influence to back segregationist candidates. African Americans attempting to exercise their right to vote or register to vote were met with severe and often deadly resistance. Three African Americans, including Emmett Till, were brutally killed that summer.

When classes started in the fall of 1955, Mississippi schools remained rigidly segregated. Years later, when the state government finally conceded that it could not maintain segregated schools in violation of a Supreme Court decision, segregationist whites would choose to withdraw their children from the public school system rather than send them to school with African Americans.

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