Today in 1954: The Supreme Court decides Brown v. Board of Education

May 17, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryIn our “Today in Legal History” series, we cover a wide variety of historical legal events.

Some, such as last week’s Nix v. Hedden Supreme Court case ruling that tomatoes are vegetables, not fruits, are somewhat amusing.

Others, such as March’s Minor v. Happersett Supreme Court case ruling that women have no constitutional right to vote (before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment), are interesting.

Both of these kinds of cases are lesser known.  We do cover more renowned legal events, such as the signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the Supreme Court’s ruling in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., but these milestones are generally only “well-known” to those within the legal field.

Once in a long while, however, we get to mark the anniversary of a truly extraordinary legal event – and today is one of those instances.

59 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.

In making this ruling, the Court found that separate is inherently unequal – even if the school facilities and teachers are of equal quality – because the segregation policy itself “is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the [African American] group.”

Brown overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, which was decided one day short of exactly 58 years earlier.

Plessy had the polar opposite ruling as Brown – that separate facilities were constitutional, as long as they were both of equal quality, and that any denotation of inferiority is imposed not by the policy, but by the minority group themselves.

In Brown, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Plessy and effectively invalidated all forms of racial segregation as unconstitutional.

To say that this ruling was a milestone is something of an understatement.

Brown empowered not only the legal side of the civil rights movement, but the civil rights movement at large: for the nation’s highest judicial body to stand together – unanimously – and declare that all forms of racial segregation imposed by law are unconstitutional was an extremely powerful message.

Indeed, that the opinion was unanimous was no accident.  Although there were seemingly a majority of justices in favor of desegregation when the case was originally argued on December 9, 1952, the case was set to be reargued one year later, for the three days of December 7, 8, and 9 of 1953.

Justice Felix Frankfurter sought to use this extra time to convince the justices who planned on dissenting to join in the Brown majority.

Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who opposed desegregation, appeared to be a major obstacle to this goal, but with his death on September 8, 1953, his influence on the Court naturally diminished, and Frankfurter was able to secure the unanimous majority.

Justice Frankfurter believed that a unanimous opinion would stand as a powerful message against racial segregation, despite the legal impact of a unanimous opinion being indistinguishable from a ruling with a dissenting minority.

You could say that the point of Brown’s unanimous opinion was to lead the way for the rest of the country away from racial segregation.

In this way, the Court of 1954 is starkly different from today’s Supreme Court, at least in regards to same-sex marriage rights.

During  oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry (the Prop 8 case), many justices commented that they were hesitant to make a ruling on the issue of whether same-sex couples have equal rights to marriage as opposite-sex couples until “more states weigh in.”

In other words, these justices weren’t prepared to take a moral stand on the issue until it became abundantly clear that most (or the rest) of the nation had already taken that same stance.

Perhaps this is part of what makes the Brown decision so monumental: the Supreme Court exhibited a bravery that is rarely seen nowadays: the courage to take a moral stand on an extremely divisive issue and attempt to lead the country forward.

Although Perry and its DOMA counterpart U.S. v. Windsor will almost certainly not be unanimous opinions, it’s still possible for individual justices on today’s Court to demonstrate the courage shown by the Brown Court:

Instead of waiting for a majority of states to “weigh in” on the issue of same-sex marriage, these justices could take a moral stand and lead the country down the path of greater equality for all.