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Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS ruling was 60 years ago on May 17, 1954

President Barack Obama issued a statement yesterday, acknowledging the 60th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court ruling, "Brown v. Board of Education," reported the New York Daily News. The United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) declared in that 1954 ruling that any state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The landmark ruling of 'Brown v. Board of Education,' was the first major step in dismantling the 'separate but equal' doctrine that justified Jim Crow. The decision overturned the "Plessy v. Ferguson" decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation, insofar as it applied to public education.

Thurgood Marshall (center), chief counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, George E. C. Hayes (left) and James M. Nabrit (right) took it on. The trio is shown walking down the steps after the monumental achievement.
(LIFE magazine/Getty)
On the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that forever reshaped America's educational landscape, LIFE recalls a school integration battle in Virginia five long years later.
(Paul Schutzer—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The ruling was handed down on May 17, 1954, when the Warren Court unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiff, in a (9–0) decision stated, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, "de jure" racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and was a major victory of the civil rights movement.

President Obama continued in his statement, "As we commemorate this historic anniversary, we recommit ourselves to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms. We reaffirm our belief that all children deserve an education worthy of their promise. And we remember that change did not come overnight – that it took many years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children."

Obama added, "We will never forget the men, women, and children who took extraordinary risks in order to make our country more fair and more free. Today, it falls on us to honor their legacy by taking our place in their march, and doing our part to perfect the union we love."

First Lady Michelle Obama observed the anniversary on Friday by visiting Topeka, Kansas, and the site of the lawsuit that initiated the case. She met Friday with high school students in a college preparatory program and delivered remarks at a pre-graduation event for seniors in the Topeka Public School District, reported the New York Daily News.

"Every day, you have that same power to choose our better history — by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up for what you know is right, by sharing the lessons of Brown v. Board of Education, the lessons you learned right here in Topeka, wherever you go for the rest of your lives," Mrs. Obama said. "As you all know, back then, Topeka was a segregated city, so black folks and white folks had separate restaurants, separate hotels, separate movie theaters and swimming pools, and the elementary schools were segregated too."

The First Lady Michelle Obama point out, that "Even though many black children lived just blocks away from the white schools in their neighborhoods, they had to take long bus rides to all-black schools across town."

That is when a group of citizens decided to take a stand. "Eventually, a group of black parents got tired of this arrangement, and they decided to do something about it." The First Lady Michelle Obama added, "The truth is that Brown vs. Board of Education isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future. Because while that case was handed down 60 years ago, Brown is still being decided every single day – not just in our courts and schools, but in how we live our lives."

"Our laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but there’s nothing in our Constitution that says we have to eat together in the lunchroom or live together in the same neighborhoods," added First Lady Michelle Obama. "There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny. So the answers to many of our challenges today can’t necessarily be found in our laws."

"Brown v. Board of Education" resolved these legal issues and overturned "Plessy v. Ferguson" and its core theme of "separate but equal." However, the First Lady Michelle Obama pointed out. "These changes also need to take place in our hearts and in our minds."

Time magazine reports that for much of the sixty years preceding the "Brown" case, race relations in the U.S. had been dominated by racial segregation. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court case of "Plessy v. Ferguson," which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment ("no State shall... deny to any person... the equal protection of the laws.").

The plaintiffs in "Brown" asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 in which it was prohibited. "Brown" was influenced by UNESCO's 1950 Statement, signed by a wide variety of internationally renowned scholars, titled "The Race Question."

This declaration denounced previous attempts at scientifically justifying racism as well as morally condemning racism. Another work that the Supreme Court cited was Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy" (1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration. The research performed by the educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark also influenced the Court's decision. The Clarks' "doll test" studies presented substantial arguments to the Supreme Court about how segregation had an impact on black schoolchildren's mental status.

Since that SCOTUS ruling in "Brown v. Board of Education" in 1954, the ruling was not easy to enforce. The most often cited and arguably the most memorable integration battle took place in 1957, in Arkansas, when the Little Rock Nine entered high school — after President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and, incredibly, sent in troops from the storied 101st Airborne to ensure the teens’ safety. But the drama and tension so evident in Little Rock also played out — albeit with less firepower on hand – in schools around the country for years after Brown v. Board of Education.

One of those post-Little Rock battles: the integration of high schools in Virginia five long years after the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling. In February 1959, the state’s governor, J. Lindsay Almond, reluctantly abandoned his carefully choreographed "massive resistance" to integration — including the closing of schools and keeping thousands of kids out of class in an attempt to forestall desegregation.

Six decades later, their courage still astounds.


Brown v. Board of Education wikipedia page

President Obama's statement on 60th anniversary

Time recalls

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