7 Things You Might Not Have Known About Brown v. Board of Education

Warren Court

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren proclaimed to the nation that schools were no longer to be segregated by race. The ruling in Brown v. Board, the one Warren had read, would prove to be one of the most significant rulings in history, in many ways paving the way for the Civil Rights movement. Despite the case's significance, however, much has fallen to the wayside and a lot has been forgotten. Here are 7 interesting facts you might not have known about Brown v. Board.

The Case was Named After Oliver L. Brown, One of the 13 Parents Who Filed Lawsuit Against Board of Education of Topeka

While Brown v. Board’s outcome is known to many, few know the case’s initial origins. The case’s official, full name was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 13 African-American parents from Topeka, Kansas, filed a class-action lawsuit against Topeka’s Board of Education, hoping to overturn its policy of school segregation for their 20 children. Oliver L. Brown, one of the 13 parents, was the named plaintiff in the case – and from whom the case takes its name.

It Took Years for School Segregation to be Ruled Unconstitutional

Looking back, the decision in Brown v. Board seems obvious. Segregated schools were not ‘separate but equal’ but separate, unjust and unequal. Yet the case was not decided quickly. In fact, the case spent roughly four years in the judicial system – two in the lower courts, and two in the Supreme Court – before a ruling came down. Of course, that the Supreme Court overturned the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine is much more important than the fact that it took years for the historic ruling.

The Justices Were Initially Split on the Legality of School Segregation

Although in the end the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against school segregation, when the case first arrived, the justices were not in accord. After the Supreme Court’s first conference, held in December of 1952, the Court appeared bitterly divided on the question of the legality of school segregation. Four justices opposed school segregation, two were undecided, and two sought to maintain it. Chief Justice Earl Warren, however, managed to persuade the associate justices not only that school segregation is unconstitutional but also that on such a polarizing issue, a unanimous decision is critical.

The Ruling Might Have Been Different if Chief Justice Vinson Didn't Die

Most Americans associate Earl Warren with the Brown v. Board ruling, and rightfully so. However, he was not the sitting Chief Justice when the Court first took on the case. Kentuckian Fred M. Vinson was, until he died of a heart attack on September 8, 1953. According to most sources, Vinson would have voted to uphold school segregation. Many thus consider Vinson’s death as vital for the outcome of the case of Brown v. Board.

Justices Who Upheld School Segregation Didn't Want to Overturn a Precedent

As indicated above, the Supreme Court was initially split. But it was not the issue of morality that divided the justices. It was a matter of judicial precedent. Justices who sought to uphold school segregation cited the notion of ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, established by the 1896 ruling in case of Plessy v. Ferguson, as a strong precedent the Court should not overturn. The justices who opposed school segregation disagreed, arguing that segregated schools were unconstitutional and therefore, the Plessy v. Ferguson’s ruling is irrelevant.

Brown v. Board was Just the Beginning of Warren's Impressive Career as Chief Justice

Earl Warren, appointed as Chief Justice in 1953 (served until 1969), is best remembered for his role in Brown v. Board. However, the case that ended school segregation in the United States was just the beginning of Warren’s impressive career as Chief Justice. Under his leadership, the Supreme Court made several landmark rulings which resulted in far-reaching changes in the constitutional law. In 1963, he was also appointed as the chair of the so-called Warren Commission which was created to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Brown v. Board's Ruling Didn't Have an Immediate Effect

Brown v. Board’s ruling has echoed through the decades. It was both a departure from America’s racist past and a nod to the founding notion that “All men are created equal”. But while the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board has and will always be remembered for all that it encapsulated, the integration of schools did not occur overnight. The Court ruled that all schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed”. Though well intended, the phrase’s lack of specificity was seen by the critics as a permission to delay desegregation. Indeed, it would take years before desegregation was finally completed.