70 years since Brown v. Board of Education

World Today

A third grader walks down a hall between classes at Highland Elementary School in Columbus, Kan., on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Third graders in the tiny 900-student Columbus school district have fought to catch up on reading in the wake of COVID-19 disruptions. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Friday, May 17 marks seven decades since Brown v. Board of Education, the historic Supreme Court decision that deemed racial segregation in U.S. public schools unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka argued in 1951 that racial segregation in U.S. public schools did not provide ‘separate but equal’ treatment, but instead offered inferior facilities and education for Black students. The court in Kansas ruled against the Brown family, who had sued for the right to send their daughter to the nearest public school, rather than send her on a treacherous daily commute to a school designated for Black children.

Twelve other families were also part of the lawsuit. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous 9-0 decision in favor of the plaintiffs, represented by then-NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice.

The Court ruled that racially “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and any law used to enforce school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.The landmark decision partially overruled the Court’s 1896 “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which said segregation laws were not in violation of the Constitution if schools and facilities designated for whites and Blacks were equal in quality.

The Court’s decision put an end to legalized racial segregation in schools, and paved the way for integration in the U.S., but met with decades of resistance and slow implementation in some states.

In 1971, the Court upheld the use of busing students to other school districts in order to better integrate schools in the state of North Carolina.

“All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes, but all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation.” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling.

With the United States more diverse in 2024 than it has ever been, many activists argue that access to educational resources along racial lines is still far from equal.

U.S. schools, on average, are less white and more multiracial, but students of color largely attend schools in districts with less whites and less resources, according to a UCLA Civil Rights Project report.

The UCLA report found that while 45% of all U.S. students are white, most Black and Latino students go to schools that are 75% non-white.U.S. schools with large non-white student populations tend to have fewer resources, fewer AP class options, more teacher shortages, and higher student-to-counselor ratios, Axios reports.

Residential and economic barriers perpetuate unofficial segregation in the U.S. 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, research shows.Unofficial segregation between white and Black students has risen 64% since 1988 in the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., according to a study by Stanford and USC.