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Participants Look Back on Historic Brown v. Board of Education

By Hayley Miller

Marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-imposed racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment, Columbia and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) will host a yearlong celebration in honor of the ruling.

The inaugural event, which took place on Monday, Feb. 2, provided an opportunity for those who worked on this historic case to explore its origins and scope, and to evaluate its success. It brought together Mrs. Thurgood Marshall, the widow of the attorney who represented the plaintiff in the case, and lawyers who played integral roles in the case, including Hon. Robert L. Carter, Law '41 LL.M.; Law Professor Jack Greenberg, CC '45, Law '48; Judge Louis H. Pollak; and Judge Jack B. Weinstein, Law '48, a longtime member of the faculty. Oliver Hill and Judge Constance Baker Motley, Law '46, also participated via live video conference.

"Cases like Brown do not simply happen," said Columbia Law Dean David Leebron in his opening remarks. "This case, probably the most important constitutional law case of the last hundred years, is a demonstration of just how much talented and passionate lawyers can achieve."

In a second event, to be held on Feb. 10, President Bill Clinton will deliver an address to Law School students and faculty at Low Library. He will be preceded by President Lee C. Bollinger, Law '71, a noted First Amendment scholar, and Greenberg, who was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001 by Clinton for his enduring work in defense of civil rights.

Future anniversary events will explore topics such as "America Before Brown," "Equality," "The Mystery of Brown" and "Fairness in Equality in Criminal Justice." Speakers will range from academicians to civil rights leaders to world leaders.

The unanimous Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." Greenberg and other Law School graduates and faculty were among the attorneys who represented the African-American plaintiffs. The Supreme Court also ruled that school segregation in the District of Columbia violated the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees due process of law.

From the perspective of the 21st century, it's difficult to imagine that in 1950 in Topeka , Kansas , Linda Brown, then a 7-year-old girl, was denied admission to elementary school because of the color of her skin. She had to cross railway tracks to catch a bus that would take more than an hour to transport her to the nearest school for black students. The NAACP's LDF, which was founded and led by Thurgood Marshall, represented her and her father, as well as a score of other families.

The challenges facing black elementary students in Topeka were similar to those in other parts of the country. In Prince Edward County , Virginia , black students could attend only one high school, which was seriously overcrowded and sorely lacking in appropriate facilities. In Clarendon County , South Carolina , about 75 percent of the schoolchildren were black and attended separate schools. Yet they received only 40 percent of the school district's funds.

These cases, as well as one from Delaware and another from the District of Columbia , were argued together. They are commonly referred to as Brown v. Board of Education, although the District of Columbia case is sometimes referred to separately as Bolling v. Sharpe.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs who argued the case before the Supreme Court were Thurgood Marshall, who subsequently became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice, Greenberg, Louis L. Redding, Carter, Spottswood W. Robinson III, James M. Nabrit, Jr. and George E. C. Hayes.

Among Columbians who represented plaintiffs and who participated in writing the briefs were Charles L. Black, Jr. (a professor at Columbia and Yale law schools), Constance Baker Motley, Law '46, and Weinstein.

On May 17, 1954 , Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the ruling that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." According to Greenberg, who was a key figure in the NAACP's LDF for some 35 years, the country's reaction to the decision when it first came down was "conflicted." President Dwight Eisenhower -- also the former President of Columbia University -- said only that the law must be obeyed.

Brown ruled that the federal government couldn't enforce segregation, but Southern states sought to circumvent the ruling by creating administrative obstacles to the transfer of students to other schools. These delaying tactics, Pollak said, galvanized the civil rights movement. And the court case also became a catalyst for changes in legal structures governing far more than education; it put the force of law on the side of desegregation in policy area after policy area.

Published: Feb 09, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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