May 17th

On This Day in 1954, the US Supreme Court unanimously concluded that school segregation was unconstitutional in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.


Following the end of the Second World War, racial tensions and ethnic segregation had been on the rise. Despite the Civil War being won, ensuring the same legal rights for African Americans as white Americans, segregation in Southern states was rampant. Although much progress had been made in the courts, with white primaries and housing covenants banned and law schools being made to admit African Americans and ensure racial balance. Nevertheless, all were aware that the most controversial – primary education – was yet to come.

Racist Southerners opposed the idea of integration of the different races, believing that it would inevitably lead to the breakdown of arbitrary racial divisions. The concept of interracial marriage appalled many white Southerners, who continued to believe in the concept of racial purity. This was the world of the 1950s, where though race may have had little legal bias, the social implications were far reaching and destructive.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People worked with lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter all over the country to protect the rights of racial minorities.

When the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka arrived at the Supreme Court, having already passed through the lower courts of the US judicial system, people camped outside the court building in Washington to ensure a seat for the trial. Marshall and Carter were opposing the formidable John W. Davis, who had made 139 prior appearances at the Supreme court and run for President on the Democratic ticket in 1924, losing spectacularly to incumbent Calvin Coolidge, who still got over 50% of the vote despite another candidate getting 16% and splitting the Republican vote. At this point in history, the Democratic Party continued to represent the deep South and white voters, whilst the Republican legacy encouraged the support of more ethnic and racially diverse voters.

Davis argued that African Americans should be grateful for the way things currently were, and that it was up to the States themselves to determine how they educated their children, as alluded to in the 10th Amendment. After 3 days of arguing, he was confident that he had won. Allegedly remarking that he though 5-4 or 6-3 would vote in his favour.

However, midway through the case, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died. Earl Warren, ex-Governor of California, was nominated by President Eisenhower to be his successor. Warren, like the rest of his fellow justices on May 17th, then announced that the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that, ” in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place”, ruling any form of education based segregation unconstitutional, referencing the 14th Amendment.




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