Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. 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.
Cases decided soon after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment may be read as precluding any state-imposed distinction based on race,1 but the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson2 adopted a principle first propounded in litigation attacking racial segregation in the schools of Boston, Massachusetts.3 Plessy concerned not schools but a state law requiring
equal but separate facilities for rail transportation and requiring the separation of
white and colored passengers.
The object of the [Fourteenth] [A]mendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in exercise of their police power.4 The Court observed that a common instance of this type of law was the separation by race of children in school, which had been upheld, it was noted,
even by courts of states where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.5
Subsequent cases following Plessy that actually concerned school segregation did not expressly question the doctrine and the Court’s decisions assumed its validity. It held, for example, that a Chinese student was not denied equal protection by being classified with African Americans and sent to school with them rather than with white students,6 and it upheld the refusal of an injunction to require a school board to close a white high school until it opened a high school for African Americans.7 And no violation of the Equal Protection Clause was found when a state law prohibited a private college from teaching white and black students together.8
In 1938, the Court began to move away from
separate but equal. It held that a state that operated a law school open to white students only violated a black applicant’s right to equal protection, even though the state offered to pay his tuition at an out-of-state law school. The requirement of the clause was for equal facilities within the state.9 When Texas established a law school for African Americans after the plaintiff had applied and been denied admission to the school maintained for whites, the Court held the action to be inadequate, finding that the nature of law schools and the associations possible in the white school necessarily meant that the separate school was unequal.10 Equally objectionable was the fact that when Oklahoma admitted an African American law student to its only law school it required him to remain physically separate from the other students.11
Separate but equal was formally abandoned in Brown v. Board of Education,12 which involved challenges to segregation per se in the schools of four states in which the lower courts had found that the schools provided were equalized or were in the process of being equalized. Though the Court had asked for argument on the intent of the framers, extensive research had proved inconclusive, and the Court asserted that it could not
turn the clock back to 1867. . . or even to 1896, but must rather consider the issue in the context of the vital importance of education in 1954. The Court reasoned that denial of opportunity for an adequate education would often be a denial of the opportunity to succeed in life, that separation of the races in the schools solely on the basis of race must necessarily generate feelings of inferiority in the disfavored race adversely affecting education as well as other matters, and therefore that the Equal Protection Clause was violated by such separation.
We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.13
After hearing argument on what remedial order should issue, the Court remanded the cases to the lower courts to adjust the effectuation of its mandate to the particularities of each school district.
At stake is the personal interest of the plaintiffs in admission to public schools as soon as practicable on a nondiscriminatory basis. The lower courts were directed to
require that the defendants make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance, although
[o]nce such a start has been made, some additional time would be needed because of problems arising in the course of compliance and the lower courts were to allow it if on inquiry delay were found to be
in the public interest and [to be] consistent with good faith compliance . . . to effectuate a transition to a racially nondiscriminatory school system. In any event, however, the lower courts were to require compliance
with all deliberate speed.14