By AUDREY FISCHER
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." This decision was pivotal to the struggle for racial desegregation in the United States. A new Library of Congress exhibition titled "'With an Even Hand': Brown v. Board at Fifty" commemorates the 50th anniversary of this landmark judicial case. The exhibition is on view through Nov. 13 in the South Gallery of the Great Hall in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building. Funding for the exhibition and its programming have been made possible by AARP, Anthony and Beatrice Welters, and AmeriChoice, a UnitedHealth Group Company.
History was made 50 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision declaring racial segregation in the public schools to be unconstitutional. Just steps from where that historic decision was made, the Library of Congress recently opened an exhibition commemorating this pivotal event. Featuring more than 100 items from the Library's extensive holdings on this subject, "'With an Even Hand': Brown v. Board at Fifty" examines precedent-setting court cases that laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court's decision, explores the court's argument and the public's response to it, and closes with an overview of the effects of this profound decision.
"As the repository of the most comprehensive civil rights collection in the country, the Library of Congress is pleased to commemorate this historic milestone in the civil rights movement with an exhibition and a series of special programs," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
The exhibition involved 11 staff curators, who drew on material from the Library's collections in multiple formats, such as manuscripts, rare books, legal material, photographs, political cartoons, maps and newspapers. A film compilation captures the historic events and highlights media coverage of the struggle for desegregation.
"The exhibition title quotes Robert L. Carter, one of the counsel representing the plaintiffs," explained Daun van Ee, the Library's 20th century American history specialist and one of the exhibition curators from the Manuscript Division. In his oral argument before the Supreme Court on Dec. 9, 1952, Carter argued against the constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools and stated: "It is our position that any legislative or governmental classification must fall with an even hand on all persons similarly situated."
The focus of "With an Even Hand" is the pivotal role played by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in crafting a brilliant legal argument.
"As the custodians of the NAACP Records, the Library of Congress has a unique opportunity to trace the NAACP's involvement in this case," said exhibition curator Adrienne Cannon, the Library's Afro-American history and culture specialist in the Manuscript Division.
Comprising millions of items, the NAACP Records is the Library's largest and arguably the most heavily used collection. Yet the organization's role in the Brown decision is not commonly known or fully understood.
Beginning in 1909 a small group of activists organized and founded the NAACP. They waged a long struggle to eliminate racial discrimination and segregation from American life. By the middle of the 20th century their focus was on legal challenges to public school segregation.
"The exhibition serves as a civics lesson by demonstrating how well the NAACP's legal team understood the judicial process," said Irene Chambers, director of the Library's Interpretive Programs Office. "They persevered for decades to prove that segregation was unconstitutional."
By tracing the events that led up to the Brown decision, the exhibition corrects the commonly held assumption that the Brown case was the first and only case of its kind. (In Kansas alone there were 11 such cases spanning the period 1881-1949.) African American parents began to challenge racial segregation in public education as early as 1849 in the case of Roberts v. City of Boston, Mass. The plaintiff, Benjamin Roberts, sued the city when his daughter was not allowed to attend her local school. Although argued in the Massachusetts Supreme Court by the noted attorney, abolitionist and future senator Charles Sumner, the case was lost. Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled in favor of the right of the school committee to set its own education policy. On display in the exhibition, from the Library's Rare Book collection, is Sumner's 1849 argument.
Courtesy of the NAACP After the abolition of slavery in the United States, three constitutional amendments were passed to grant newly freed African Americans legal status: the 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th guaranteed rights of citizenship, due process and equal protection, and the 15th guaranteed the right to vote. In spite of these amendments and civil rights acts to enforce the amendments, between 1873 and 1883 the Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions that virtually nullified the work of Congress during Reconstruction. Regarded by many as second-class citizens, African Americans were separated from whites by law and in fact in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, prisons, armed forces and schools in both Northern and Southern states.
By the time Homer A. Plessy, an octoroon (one-eighth Negro blood) who lived
in New Orleans, challenged that city's right to segregate public transportation
by riding in a "whites only" rail car, the constitutional amendments, passed
after the Civil War and written to provide protections and rights for black
citizens, had been thoroughly eroded. The Louisiana state courts ruled against
Plessy, and he lost his case at the highest level as well, when in 1896 the
U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case that came to be known as H.A. Plessy
v. J.H. Ferguson, that "separate but equal" facilities did not violate the
U.S. Constitution's 14th amendment.
Brown v. Board of Education Of Topeka, Kan.
The NAACP and its legal offspring, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, developed a systematic attack against Plessy's doctrine of "separate but equal." The strategy to use the courts to challenge segregation in public education began with the NAACP under the leadership of attorney Charles Hamilton Houston during the 1930s. Houston, the former vice dean of Howard University Law School, recruited Thurgood Marshall to assist with the NAACP's legal campaign. Marshall served as a leading counsel in the Brown cases. (The opposing side was led by John W. Davis, a one-time Democratic presidential candidate and expert on constitutional law.) Houston is believed to have taken a number of the photographs on display in the Library's Brown v. Board exhibition. His images of schools for black students show that facilities were separate but never equal.
The legal campaign against school segregation began by targeting inequities at the graduate and professional educational levels. The attack culminated in the compilation of five separate cases originating in communities across the country—Topeka, Kan.; Farmville, Va.; Wilmington, Del.; Washington, D.C.; and Clarendon County, S.C. Representing some 200 plaintiffs, the historic Supreme Court case takes its name from Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in the Topeka case, whose daughter was denied access to a local white elementary school. The case was filed by Brown and 12 other parents on behalf of 20 African American children who were bused five miles and forced to walk through an unsafe railroad yard to attend school.
Aware of the gravity of the issue and concerned with the possible political and social repercussions, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case argued on three separate occasions in as many years. The court carefully weighed considerations involving adherence to legal precedent, social science findings on the negative effects of segregation and the marked inferiority of the schools that African Americans were forced to attend.
The Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision on May 17, 1954. It held that school segregation violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th amendment. The Supreme Court's decision marked the culmination of a plan the NAACP had put into action more than 40 years earlier—the end to racial inequality.
After the Brown opinion was announced, the court heard additional arguments during the following term on the decree for implementing the ruling. In a draft, prepared by Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter and subsequently adopted by Chief Justice Earl Warren, "with all deliberate speed" replaced "forthwith," which Marshall had suggested to achieve an accelerated desegregation timetable. (The draft document, including Frankfurter's handwritten change, is featured in the exhibition).
Frankfurter wanted to anchor the decree in an established doctrine, and his endorsement of it sought to advance a consensus held by the entire court. The justices thought that the decree should provide for flexible enforcement, appeal to established principles and suggest some basic ground rules for judges of the lower courts. When it became clear that opponents of desegregation were using the doctrine to delay and avoid compliance with Brown, the court began to express reservations about the phrase.
The "deliberate speed" called for in the Supreme Court's Brown decision was quickly overshadowed by events outside the nation's courtrooms. In Montgomery, Ala., a grassroots revolt against segregated public transportation inspired a multitude of similar protests and boycotts. A number of school districts in the Southern and border states desegregated peacefully while one school system, Prince Edward County, Va, closed its public schools for a number of years rather than comply with the law.
In 1956 Clinton High School in Knoxville, Tenn., was set to be the first high school in the South to be integrated after the Brown decision. Integration was progressing smoothly until the segregationist White Citizens Council came to town that fall. Protests and riots continued until early in December, when several white citizens escorted the African American students to class. One of the escorts was badly beaten afterward. As a result of the episode, the school was closed on Dec. 4; it reopened six days later without incident.
Elsewhere, white resistance to school desegregation resulted in open defiance and violent confrontations, requiring the use of federal troops in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. Efforts to end segregation in Southern colleges were also marred by obstinate refusals to welcome African Americans into previously all-white student bodies.
In 1956 U.S. District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools. After a series of appeals, in 1960, Wright set down a plan that required the integration of the schools on a grade-per-year basis, beginning with the first grade. The New Orleans School Board issued a test to black kindergartners to determine the best candidates. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges was one of six children selected; four agreed to proceed. On Nov. 14 Bridges integrated the William Frantz School (the other three children were assigned to the McDonough School). In retaliation, white parents withdrew their children from the school, and Bridges' father was fired from his job. Ruby completed the first grade alone with the support of Barbara Henry, a Boston teacher, and Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist.
Ruby's walk to school the first day, escorted by U.S. Marshals, inspired the 1964 Norman Rockwell painting, "The Problem We All Live With." The illustration appeared in the Jan. 14, 1964, issue of Look magazine. In a letter on display in the exhibition, Rockwell offers the illustration to the NAACP for subsequent use. He envisioned the NAACP reproducing the illustration as a poster to publicize the association's progress and accomplishments.
The image of Gov. George Wallace blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama is one of the most recognized of all the images from the civil rights period. On June 11, 1963, Wallace, surrounded by Alabama state troopers, confronted and blocked Assistant U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the African American students from entering the university. President Kennedy had to federalize the National Guard and send them to the campus to assist with the integration process. Wallace did eventually step aside and allow the students to register.
By 1964, a decade after the Brown decision, the NAACP's focused legal campaign had been transformed into a mass movement to eliminate institutionalized racism from American life. This effort, marked by struggle and sacrifice, soon captured the imagination and sympathies of much of the nation. In many respects, the ideals expressed in Brown v. Board had inspired the dream of a society based on justice and racial equality.
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office. Exhibition curators Adrienne Cannon and Daun van Ee, Manuscript Division, contributed to this story.