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THE ROAD TO BROWN: A Historical Examination of School Segregation and America's Need for 'Brown'

Shantella Y. Sherman | 6/19/2013, 3 p.m.
Racial prejudice could easily be viewed as the dominant social experience faced by both African Americans and immigrants before the ...

Racial prejudice could easily be viewed as the dominant social experience faced by both African Americans and immigrants before the civil rights movement. Challenged with a desire to assimilate into the larger white mainstream, both groups singularly and collectively utilized educational opportunities to elevate their status from that of second-class citizenship. By the close of World War II, following the participation of an unprecedented number of black servicemen in liberating Europe, African Americans mobilized to bring about their own social liberation. Attacking education through the stark inequities created by generations of separate and unequal funding became the logical first move in dismantling segregation completely.

In the late 1940s lawyers working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought several class action lawsuits on behalf of black school children and their families in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, D.C., and Delaware, seeking court orders to compel school districts to let black students attend white public schools.

One of these class actions, Brown v. Board of Education was filed against the Topeka, Kansas school board by representative-plaintiff Oliver Brown. Brown, a railroad worker, alleged his daughter, eight-year-old Linda, (a third grader) had to walk half a mile through a railroad switch yard to catch a bus to get to her school, even though an all-white elementary school was only seven blocks away. Brown claimed that Topeka's racial segregation violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause because the city's Black and white schools were not equal to each other and never could be. The federal district court dismissed his claim, ruling that the segregated public schools were substantially equal enough to be constitutional. James Pennyman, 71, remembers the South Carolina case –Briggs v. Elliott that became a part of the Brown case.

“It must be understood that this was not a case of the white school having a swimming pool and the Negro one, none. Parents were fighting against dilapidated buildings, no electricity, no bathrooms, no books, limited course materials, and the reality that if the child survived miles of walking to get to school, they may come out with just enough education to be a white person’s servant,” Pennyman said. “Many whites believed Black people were a different species of animal. It was inconceivable that they or their children would be forced to live, eat next to, go to school with, or be a social equal to an animal.”

Those beliefs in the social primitiveness of Blacks were based on a scientific and social theory known as Social Darwinism, which permeated everything from notions of beauty to neighborhood redlining. As Brown attorneys Thurgood Marshall, George E.C. Hayes, and James M. Nabrit began their arguments, they found Social Darwinism firmly in place in the enactment and enforcement of school segregation.

“I got the feeling on hearing the discussion yesterday that when you put a white child in a school with a whole lot of colored children, the child would fall apart or something. Everybody knows that is not true,” Marshall said during the Supreme Court hearings.