Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas: Definition, Decision & Significance

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  • 0:02 Brown v. Board of Education
  • 0:24 The Facts
  • 2:07 Before the Court
  • 3:24 The Court's Decision
  • 3:55 The Aftermath
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. We will take an in-depth look at the facts surrounding Brown and the aftermath of the decision.

Brown v. Board Of Education

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was a United States Supreme Court case that held that race-based segregation of children into 'separate but equal' public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and is unconstitutional.

The Facts

At the time of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1951, Plessy v. Ferguson was the ruling law on school segregation. Plessy stated schools may be separated by race so long as they were equal in quality. This was then called the 'separate but equal' doctrine. Brown sought to overturn, or reverse, Plessy.

The plaintiffs in Brown were 13 Topeka parents on behalf of their 20 children. The lawsuit stated that segregated schools were not and could never be made equal. The argument was, therefore, that the 'separate but equal' doctrine denied African-American children equal protection under the laws.

The case was filed in district court. The district court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing Plessy and stating that the schools in Topeka, although separated by race, were equal with respect to buildings, busing and teachers. The plaintiffs in Brown appealed, asking the United States Supreme Court to review the decision of the lower court.

By the time Brown ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, it combined several different cases from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. Children in these different cases were all asking to be allowed to attend public schools that forced (or in some cases allowed) segregation, or separation, by race.

What was Before the Court

A case is unable to be heard by the United States Supreme Court unless it involves a constitutional question, or issue. In Brown, the question that the attorneys were asking the court to review was whether or not race-based segregation of students into 'separate but equal' public schools was constitutional. In determining whether or not the 'separate but equal' doctrine violated African-American students' equal protection rights, the court looked at what impact, if any, it had on them.

The court determined that the effect the separation had on a student went well beyond whether or not the schools were set up the same. The segregation impacted their minds and bodies. The court felt the feeling of inferiority would negatively impact the ability and motivation to learn in generations of African-American children. Therefore, in determining whether or not the schools were 'separate but equal,' the court decided that even though the schoolhouse structures may be equal, that the disparity in the impact of actually separating the students made them not equal.

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