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Mural of a Black woman reading to children in front of the Supreme Court surrounded by protesters holding signs.
Kansas City artist Michael Young created the Brown v. Board of Education mural inside the Kansas Capitol in Topeka in 2018 to depict the legacy of the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court desegregation case that had its roots in Topeka. Carol M. Highsmith. [2021]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.67074

Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education: Library of Congress Resources

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On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated public educational facilities unconstitutional. In 2024, we mark the 70th anniversary of this historic decision by looking back on the case’s procedural history and sharing the resources available at the Library of Congress for further research.

Background to the Case

In 1896, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson. In this case, the court held that segregated train cars did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if equal facilities were provided for the black and white passengers. Plessy legally protected racial segregation and remained the law of the land until the 1950s.

[Kenneth B. Clark with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, outside the U.S. Court House, Richmond Va., during the Davis v. County School Board desegregation case]. Robt. D. Crawley. [1952]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017657589/
Procedural History

In 1951, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s attorney Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court justice, filed Brown v. Board of Education in the U.S. District Court in Topeka, Kansas.

The Supreme Court consolidated five cases in its Brown v. Board decision:

  1. Briggs v. Elliott, heard in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina;
  2. Bolling v. Sharpe, heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (the district court did not issue a written opinion on this case);
  3. Brown v. Board of Education, heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas;
  4. Davis v. County School Board, heard in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia; and
  5. Gebhart v. Belton, heard in the Supreme Court of Delaware.

In each of the cases, the plaintiffs challenged local segregated schools and the lower courts ruled that Plessy permitted separate but equal racially segregated schools. The plaintiffs appealed their cases to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to consider whether “separate but equal” schools violated the Constitution.

Image of Thurgood Marshall wearing a suit sitting on a couch.
Thurgood Marshall. Thomas J. O’Halloran. [1957 September 17]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017657589/

Decision

The Supreme Court initially heard the case in December 1952, but the justices did not reach a decision by the end of the term and the case was re-argued in December 1953. Before the  case was reheard, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was able to bring the other justices to a unanimous decision. Chief Justice Warren wrote the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education opinion in which the Supreme Court overturned Plessy and struck down the separate but equal doctrine, acknowledging that segregation is inherently harmful whether or not facilities are made “equal.” The Court held that separate but equal violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court also struck down the separate but equal doctrine in Washington, D.C. in its Bolling v. Sharpe decision, which was issued on the same day as the Brown v. Board decision. The Fourteenth Amendment only applies to states, so the Court found that separate but equal facilities were also unconstitutional in the District of Columbia because they violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Library of Congress Researcher Resources

Law Library of Congress resources where you can access the U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, read the Supreme Court’s opinions, and read more about Brown v. Board of Education include:

For more information about researching Brown v. Board of Education and important figures related to the case using the Library of Congress collection, see:

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