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Interesting Facts from Brown v. Board of Education

Facts From the BVB Era


Jim Crow

The term Jim Crow originated in a song performed by Daddy Rice, a white minstrel show entertainer who performed in the 1830s. The singer covered his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork to resemble a black man, and then sang and danced a routine in caricature of a Southern black slave. How the term became synonymous with the segregation of blacks in the late 19th century is unclear, but it gradually was identified with those laws and social mores that deprived African-Americans of their civil rights.

Brown v. Board Was Not the First Brown
In 1848, Benjamin Roberts, an African-American printer, filed suit against the city of Boston, where his 5-year-old daughter was required to travel past five white public schools to reach her segregated school. He based his suit on an ordinance that stated, "Any child excluded from the public schools could recover damages." As part of an organized effort by the African-American community to end segregation in schools, litigants were represented by U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner and a prominent black attorney named Robert Morris.

In the case, Roberts v. Brown, decided in 1850, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found no constitutional basis for abolishing "colored only" schools. The decision was cited in upholding the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

A genuine attempt to integrate Boston public schools would not occur until 1974, three years after the court handed down its decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education, which approved of busing as a way to achieve desegregation. Busing was met with riots and fierce violence.

A Room of One's Own
After G. W. McLaurin was finally admitted to the Oklahoma University School of Graduate Education, he was forbidden to sit in the class with white students. Instead, he was assigned to an adjoining room from which he could look into the classroom. Later he was seated in the classroom but only in a seat reserved for Negroes. LDF lawyers sought an order prohibiting this form of segregation, but the district court refused to issue it.

Mr. McLaurin, a professor and veteran of the Second World War, was by then already in his 60s and had earned his master's degree. In early 1948, he applied for admission to the university as a doctoral candidate in education, because the black state colleges did not have comparable programs. Under McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that isolating Mr. McLaurin from the student body because of race denied him equal protection of the law and violated the 14th Amendment.

For the Defense
John W. Davis, a former U.S. solicitor general, represented the state of South Carolina in Harry Briggs, Jr., et al. v. R.W. Elliott, et al. and was the lead counsel for the defendants. Seventy-nine years old at the time, he had made 140 appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court and was considered a brilliant orator. Among his clients were Eugene Debs and Robert Oppenheimer. His last Supreme Court appearance was for Brown v. Board, for which he received no fee, though the state did send him a silver tea service, which was placed in the library of his firm, Davis, Polk & Wardwell. Mr. Davis died nine months after the Brown decision was handed down.

What's in a Name?
How did the five School Segregation cases become known as Brown v. Board of Education (or officially (Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al.)? A recent television show about the cases suggested that Chief Justice Earl Warren named them "Brown" because they dealt with the rights of brown-skinned people. According to Prof. Greenberg, nothing could be further from the truth.

"Brown" was simply the surname of plaintiff Oliver Brown (right). When the names in the case were alphabetized, his name came first - well, almost. The first plaintiff's name really should have been Darlene Brown, but irony of ironies, Oliver (no relation) was listed first because he was a man.

The other four cases that made up the School Segregation cases were:
-Harry Briggs, Jr., et al. v. R.W. Elliott, et al. (South Carolina)
-Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al.
-Spottswood Thomas Bolling, et al. v . C. Melvin Sharpe, et al. (the District of Columbia)
-Francis B. Gebhart, et al. v. Ethel Louise Belton, et al. (Delaware)

Nervous? Who's Nervous
Professor Jack Greenberg was just shy of his 28th birthday when he argued Francis B. Gebhart, et al. v. Ethel Louise Belton, et al. before the Supreme Court. Was he nervous? Not really, he says. By that time, he'd seen heavy action in the Pacific during the Second World War, including in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In addition, he says: "I knew the case inside out and had a detailed notebook on the lectern in front of me, which contained my argument, with marginal notes to guide me back if I lost my way. I had been in the trial and appeal and had done a dry run....Even if I did terribly, the others already had made many of the points I planned to present."

Thurgood Marshall
During oral arguments, Justice Robert Jackson asked Thurgood Marshall whether his argument would affect American Indians, a number of whom lived near Justice Jackson's home in upstate New York. Mr. Marshall replied that he thought that it would, but that Indians had not had the "judgment or wherewithal to bring lawsuits." Justice Jackson suggested, "Maybe you should bring some up," to which Marshall responded, "I have a full load now, Mr. Justice."

Neutral Principles 
In 1959, Professor Herbert Wechsler '31 (above) delivered the annual Oliver Wendell Holmes Lecture at Harvard Law School. His talk, titled "Toward Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law," argued that in cases brought for judicial review, amending legislative history was lawful only if its reasoning rested on "neutral principles." Prof. Wechsler singled out the Brown v. Board of Education opinion. He maintained that in relying heavily on social science, the decision had been roused more by the practical desire to secure a favorable result - integrated schools - than by a general principle, whose reasoning and analysis, he stated, would achieve the result independently. He even offered a "neutral," if flawed, "principle" of his own to iterate his position, citing the First Amendment's guarantee of "freedom of association," in place of the sociological testimony on which he believed Brown had been built.

However, by 1967, Prof. Wechsler was revisiting the controversial, if widely influential lecture that had gone on to publication in the Harvard Law Review. An article titled "The Nationalization of Civil Liberties and Civil Rights" found a contemplative Herbert Wechsler examining the then increasing role of the Supreme Court and Congress in defining the rights of U.S. citizens. In the article, which appeared in a supplement of a little known journal called the Texas Quarterly, (published at the University of Texas at Austin), Prof. Wechlser wrote that Brown had in fact "extended far beyond its rationale," a rationale that rested on a principle as hermetic as any neutral assumption: that racial distinctions simply could not be used to uphold laws that would breed discontent, envy, and inequality.

Linda Brown
When Oliver Brown tried unsuccessfully to enroll his daughter Linda (above) in a white elementary school, he sought the help of the Topeka branch of the NAACP, unknowingly beginning a process that would attach his family surname to one of the most significant cases in American legal history. Today, Ms. Brown, along with her sister Cheryl Brown, is dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. Linda Brown has been a guest lecturer, with her sister, on more than 50 university campuses and at various national organizations and community groups. She is co-owner of Brown & Brown Associates, an educational consulting firm, and has been the recipient of numerous awards for work in education and community service.

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