Marshall now launched a frontal assault on segregation itself. He brought the NAACP’s support to local cases that had arisen when black parents challenged unfair school policies. To do so required remarkable courage. In Clarendon County, South Carolina, Levi Pearson, a black farmer who brought a lawsuit on behalf of his children, saw his house burned to the ground. The Clarendon case attacked not segregation itself but the unequal funding of schools. The local school board spent $i 79 per white child and $43 per black, and unlike white pupils, black children attended class in buildings with no running water or indoor toilets and were not provided with buses to transport them to classes. Five such cases from four states and the District of Columbia were combined in a single appeal that reached the Supreme Court late in 1952.

When cases are united, they are listed alphabetically and the first case gives the entire decision its name. In this instance, the first case arose from a state outside the old Confederacy. Oliver Brown went to court because his daughter, a third grader, was forced to walk across dangerous railroad tracks each morning rather than being allowed to attend a nearby school restricted to whites. His lawsuit became Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Thurgood Marshall decided that the time had come to attack not the unfair applications of the “separate but equal” principle but the doctrine itself. Even with the same funding and facilities, he insisted, segregation was inherently unequal since it stigmatized one group of citizens as unfit to associate with others. Drawing on studies by New York psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, Marshall argued that segregation did lifelong damage to black children, undermining their self-esteem. In its legal brief, the Eisenhower administration did not directly support Marshall’s position, but it urged the justices to consider “the problem of racial discrimination... in the context of the present world struggle between freedom and tyranny.” Other peoples, it noted, “cannot understand how such a practice can exist in a country which professes to be a staunch supporter of freedom, justice, and democracy.”

The new chief justice, Earl Warren, managed to create unanimity on a divided Court, some of whose members disliked segregation but feared that a decision to outlaw it would spark widespread violence. On May 17, 1954, Warren himself read aloud the decision, only eleven pages long. Segregation in public education, he concluded, violated the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. “In the field of education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The black press hailed the Brown decision as a “second Emancipation Proclamation.” And like its predecessor it was in many ways a limited document. The decision did not address segregation in institutions other than public schools or ban all racial classifications in the law, such as statutes prohibiting interracial marriage. It did not address the de facto school segregation of the North, which rested on housing patterns rather than state law. It did not order immediate implementation but instead called for hearings as to how segregated schooling should be dismantled. But Brown marked the emergence of the “Warren Court” as an active agent of social change. And it inspired a wave of optimism that discrimination would soon disappear. “What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children,” wrote the black novelist Ralph Ellison.

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