The Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, had an impact on school districts thousands of miles away. Barnard School, in Washington, D.C., above, was integrated a year after the Brown decision.

Photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran, courtesy Library of Congress

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    On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools. The ruling, ending the five-year case of Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was a unanimous decision.
    Brown, actually a collection of five school segregation cases, overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine outlined in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Without ruling that black-only schools were inherently inferior to white-only schools, Brown ruled that racial segregation itself was unconstitutional. In particular, such segregation violated the so-called “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
    The Brown decision had an enormous impact on public schools in the U.S. In Topeka, elementary schools desegregated within two years. (Middle and high schools were already integrated.) However, not all states accepted the Supreme Court’s decision. In Virginia, for instance, a campaign called “Massive Resistance” opposed desegregation. Many public schools in Virginia closed down rather than accept integration. Virginia did not entirely integrate its public schools until the 1970s.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abridge Verb

    to shorten or reduce.

    Board of Education Noun

    group of elected officials who decide educational policy for school districts.

    campaign Noun

    activities designed to achieve a social, political, or military goal.

    citizen Noun

    member of a country, state, or town who shares responsibilities for the area and benefits from being a member.

    clause Noun

    one part of a contract, treaty, or other agreement.

    deny Verb

    to refuse or not allow

    deprive Verb

    to withhold or prevent from using.

    desegregate Verb

    to end segregation by race.

    doctrine Noun

    policy or system of teachings.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    equipment Noun

    tools and materials to perform a task or function.

    inferior Adjective

    of lower quality.

    inherent Adjective

    intrinsic, or existing as an inseparable part of something.

    integration Noun

    process of mixing different substances or groups.

    jurisdiction Noun

    geographic region associated with a legal authority.

    liberty Noun


    oppose Verb

    to be or act against something.

    policy Noun

    set of actions or rules.

    public Adjective

    available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.

    school district Noun

    geographic area whose schools are managed by one administration.

    segregation Noun


    sue Verb

    to bring a lawsuit against a person or organization.

    Supreme Court Noun

    highest judicial authority on issues of national or constitutional importance in the U.S.

    unanimous Adjective

    being totally united in support or rejection of an idea or vote.

    unconstitutional Adjective

    against the laws of the United States Constitution.