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Separate but Equal?

FOCUS: The Supreme Court Endorses, Then Outlaws Racial Segregation


To help students understand how evolving ideas about justice can influence the law, specifically how the Supreme Court moved the U.S. from a nation that embraced racial segregation to one that prohibited it by law.

Discussion Questions:

* You are writing a script for Time Machine, a docudrama about people who travel through history. How might Earl Warren explain the 1954 Court ruling to Justice Henry Billings Brown? (Write 10 or more sentences.)

* What would the U.S. be like today if the Warren Court and those that followed had upheld Plessy v. Ferguson?


Photo Analysis: Before students begin reading, have them study the photos on pages 23-25. Note The New York Times headline reporting that in 1954 racial segregation in public schools was legal in Washington, D.C., and 17 states. Tell students to assume they are curators at a photo gallery. What title would they give to an exhibition of photos and headlines like those in this article?

Critical Thinking/Writing: Have students write brief answers to the following questions, then discuss responses:

* Examine the first two and last two lines of Justice Brown's statement on page 24. Can there be legal equality of the races, as Brown says, if there is a legal distinction between them?

* In Brown v. Board of Education, what did the Court mean when it said separate educational facilities were "inherently" unequal?

* Defense attorneys in Brown v. Board of Education argued that segregated states had spent huge amounts of money to ensure that black and white schools were equal. Why didn't that argument work?

* What does the Warren Court's reversal of the 58-year-old separate-but-equal doctrine suggest about how change in society can change law? Did the growing distance from the era of slavery--and blacks' service in two World Wars--begin to change attitudes about race and justice?

Web Watch: For more on the Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education rulings, log onto

The Supreme Court upheld racial segregation in 1896--and took 58 years to change its mind

A black child is shown two dolls, one black and one white, and asked which one looks nicer. She picks the white doll. Then she is asked which doll looks more like her. That's when the tears come.

When this experiment was first conducted by the black psychologist Kenneth Clark in 1940, it showed that black children were more likely to dislike their own color if they lived in places where schools were segregated, or separated, by race. But in Southern states, racial segregation --this recipe for self-hate--had been written into law for many decades and upheld by the Supreme Court. It wasn't until 1954 that the Court had a historic change of mind.

The Civil War (1861-1865) made the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision obsolete and paved the way for constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, made blacks citizens, and gave them the vote. But white Southerners gradually closed ranks against blacks, finding ways to prevent them from voting and passing laws to keep blacks physically separate from whites.

As time went on, these "Jim Crow" laws--named for a 19th-century minstrel-song character whose origins are obscure--became harsher. Blacks were required to attend separate schools, and were restricted to separate sections of theaters and other public facilities.

On June 7, 1892, a 30-year-old shoemaker named Homer A. Plessy refused to leave the whites-only car on a train in Louisiana. Though Plessy was only one-eighth black, that made him black under Louisiana law. He was arrested and convicted in a Louisiana court by a judge named John Howard Ferguson.

Plessy appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His lawyers argued that Louisiana's laws violated Plessy's 14th Amendment right to "equal protection of the laws." Louisiana's attorney general replied that his state didn't treat blacks as inferiors, but merely required "separate but equal" railroad cars.

On May 18, 1896, the Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. By 7 to 1 with one abstention, the decision went against Plessy. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the majority:

A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races--a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color--has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.

The lone dissenter was a former slaveowner from Kentucky named John Marshall Harlan. Justice Harlan understood that "separate but equal" was merely a polite-sounding code phrase for discrimination. He wrote:

In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to he quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.... The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot he justified upon any legal grounds.

But Harlan was swimming against the tide. Jim Crow laws were on the rise--and even many Northerners approved. In 1900, a New York Times editorial said giving blacks the vote had been "a great public crime."

For generations, Jim Crow ruled the South. Signs went up marking separate public facilities "Whites Only" and "Colored." There were separate drinking fountains and separate amateur baseball fields. A Birmingham, Alabama, ordinance even forbade whites and blacks to play checkers or dominoes together. Typical of the era was the assurance a brakeman on a southbound train gave a white passenger in 1925 as they were about to cross the Ohio River: "Then you are in Dixie and ride with no niggers."

But forces of change began to stir at last. In Topeka, Kansas, in 1951, segregation required 8-year-old Linda Brown to cross dangerous railroad tracks and walk a mile to attend third grade at a black school--even though a white school was nearer to her home. Her father and other angry parents filed suit against Topeka's Board of Education, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

NAACP lawsuits had been nibbling away at the "separate but equal" precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education became the key case before the Supreme Court. NAACP lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall made a two-part argument: that "separate but equal" schools weren't really equal, and that segregated schools hurt black children by making them feel inferior. They used Clark's doll experiment to make their point.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued a historic 9-0 ruling in favor of Brown, reversing Plessy. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs [are] ... deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

While the opinion was aimed only at public schools, everyone realized that it doomed all legal segregation. In the South, reactions ranged from calm criticism to open contempt. Georgia's Lieutenant Governor, Marvin Griffin, told The Times:

I will maintain segregation in the schools and the races will not be mixed, come hell or high water. I am not surprised [at the decision]. The meddlers, demagogues, race baiters, and Communists in the United States are determined to destroy every vestige of states' rights.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision triggered the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which helped bring congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning segregation in public facilities, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing blacks the vote. But Southern states dragged their feet on actually integrating schools. Most did not comply with Brown until the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then only in response to court orders.

As the 21st century dawns, segregation by law is gone. But economic disparities and continuing patterns of segregated housing, in the North as well as the South, show that the battle for equality has not yet been fully won.
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Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 19, 2001
Previous Article:The College Aid Game.
Next Article:Under Fire: The Politics of Confirmation.

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