Photo Essay - Brown v. Board of Education

Little Rock, AR-Anti-Integration Rally Courtesy of the Library of Congress

One of the most important legal decisions in U.S. history, the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared school segregation unconstitutional and paved the way for the civil rights achievements of the 1960s. By overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessey v. Ferguson (1896), Brown v. Board of Education began the process of unraveling more than half a century of federally sanctioned discrimination against African Americans. As a result, it also initiated a struggle between a government now obligated to integrate all public schools and recalcitrant communities determined to maintain the status quo. This photograph shows an anti-integration rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, on 20 August 1959. The protesters carry American flags alongside placards declaring racial mixing to be "communism" and "the march of the antichrist"—a fascinating and disturbing mix of patriotism, prejudice, and fear.

Kenneth B. Clark Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The professor and social psychologist Kenneth Bancroft Clark devised a simple test that proved to be a powerful weapon in the NAACP's struggle to end segregation in public schools. In Clark's famous "doll test," black children between three and seven years old were shown four dolls—two black and two white—and asked to first identify their race. The children were then asked to express a preference for the dolls by deciding which were "prettier," "better," or which ones they "liked best." The results showed that the majority of black children preferred the white dolls and at times even rejected black dolls in tears, suggesting that racial prejudice and self-hatred was learned at an early age. Clark repeated his test in Clarendon County, South Carolina, one of the school districts addressed in Brown v. Board of Education, and also served as an expert witness in the South Carolina, Delaware, and Virginia cases that were consolidated into Brown. The psychological and social scientific evidence he presented helped convince the court that segregation damaged the social and mental development of black children.

Earl Warren Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Although Earl Warren was considered to be a staunch conservative when President Eisenhower appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1952, under his leadership the court issued a number of progressive rulings that have shaped American society for the past sixty years. Writing for the unanimous vote in favor of the plaintiff, Warren asserted, "In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." This ruling in the Brown case would lead to the unraveling of officially sanctioned segregation in all public institutions over the next two decades. This photograph was taken when Warren was governor of California, from 1942 to 1953.

NAACP Lawyers: (from left) George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit Jr. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Since its founding in 1909, several years after Plessy v. Ferguson, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has worked to combat racial inequality in all facets of American society, education among them. Over several decades, the NAACP's attorneys filed lawsuits attacking local municipalities for failing to provide comparable school facilities for blacks and whites despite Plessy's "separate but equal" injunction. Although many of their lawsuits were successful, it was only when the NAACP's lawyers changed tactics and challenged the constitutionality of segregation itself that the real victory was won. By demonstrating that school segregation was psychologically damaging to black children, they successfully asserted that segregation violated the equal protection rights guaranteed to all citizens by the Fourteenth Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. This photograph shows three NAACP attorneys—(from left) George E. C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit Jr.—celebrating after the Brown verdict. In 1967 Thurgood Marshall went on to become the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served for twenty four years.

Clinton High School, Tennessee, 1956 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

A second Brown v. Board of Education decision, known as Brown II, ordered that school integration should be undertaken "with all deliberate speed" but failed to provide specific dates for the change to be implemented. This initial lack of a concrete deadline virtually guaranteed that integration would not proceed smoothly. Many municipalities used the court's vagueness as an excuse to delay integration indefinitely, while others began integrating not long after the ruling was issued. Yet the road to successful integration would be a long one even in districts that implemented the court's order relatively quickly. This photograph from 1956 shows black students attending high school in Clinton, Tennessee, while their white classmates look on. Though the scene here appears peaceful, many black students faced intimidation or violence when attending integrated schools for the first time.

Clinton High School, Tennessee, 1956 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

However, tensions always ran high. A second photograph from Clinton High School shows the previous scene from a different angle, with an armed member of the National Guard watching the crowd in front of the school in case violence should erupt. In many cases it became necessary to deploy National Guard and even regular Army troops to maintain order in newly integrated areas, though even this tactic was not always successful. On 4 December 1956 Reverend Paul Turner of the First Baptist Church in Clinton was beaten while escorting black students to school. Worse yet, in October 1958 the school itself was destroyed by a series of dynamite explosions in an incident that was universally thought be related to desegregation. Although nobody was injured by the blast, the incident exposes the deep racial hatred present in many communities at the time.

School classes on television, 1958 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The conflict at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, proved to be one of the most decisive moments of the desegregation era. The enrollment of nine African American students led to a standoff between Arkansas Governor Orval Fabus, who attempted to block the students from entering the school, and a federal government bound to enforce the Supreme Court's ruling. Although the "Little Rock Nine" gained admission to Central High in 1957 when President Eisenhower ordered the National Guard to escort them to school, the school year was marred by racism and violence. In an attempt to block further integration, Little Rock's schools were closed by order of Governor Fabus for the 1958/1959 school year. During this "lost year" students were forced to attend classes in other communities or move elsewhere, while many others simply did not attend school at all. In this photograph from September 1958 a young African American woman watches a televised high school class during the time when the schools were closed.

George Wallace (left) confronted by Nicholas Katzenbach, 1963. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Another standoff took place on 11 June 1963 at the University of Alabama, where Governor George Wallace attempted to block the admission of two students—Vivian Malone and James Hood—from entering the school's Foster Auditorium. Although in this case the resistance was nonviolent and lasted only fifteen minutes, Wallace's stand illustrated the determination of some southern state governments to resist the federal order to integrate their schools. Like the shadow of the past, the issue of a state's right to resist the federal government again proved troubling for the nation. Governor Wallace is shown on the left in the auditorium door, being confronted by Deputy U. S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

Vivian Malone at the University of Alabama, c. 1965. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite Governor Wallace's resistance, Vivian Malone and James Hood successfully enrolled at the University of Alabama. Although Hood eventually left to attend school in Michigan, Malone stayed and became the first African American to graduate from the university in 1965. Despite the hostility of many of her classmates, she thrived at the school and after graduating remained active in the civil rights movement throughout her life. In 1996 Malone was chosen by the George Wallace Foundation to be the first recipient of the Lureen B. Wallace Award of Courage, which she received from the former governor himself, three decades after their first confrontational meeting.

Barnard School, Washington D.C Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite the strong resistance encountered in high schools and colleges by pioneers such as Malone, Hood, and the Little Rock Nine, Brown v. Board of Education initiated a process of slow change that could not be halted once begun. As is so often the case, little children often proved wiser than their elders, as seen in this photograph from the integrated Barnard School in Washington, D.C.