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Timeline of Events Leading to the 1954 Decision

Source: The National Archives

1857

Decision Made in Dred Scott vs. John F. A. Sanford

The Supreme Court held that whether enslaved or free, blacks could not become U.S. citizens. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney also argued that at the time of the adoption of the 1787 Constitution, blacks were considered a subordinate and inferior class of beings, "with no rights which the White man was bound to respect."

1865

Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands Formed

An act of Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, as it was commonly called, to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient in every area of life. The first black schools started under the direction of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Black Codes Established

Passed by Southern governments, these laws imposed severe restrictions on freedmen: prohibiting their right to vote; forbidding them to sit on juries; limiting their right to testify against white men; and forbidding them to carry weapons in public places and work certain occupations. Public schools were segregated.

1866

Civil Rights Act of 1866 Enacted

This act guaranteed blacks their basic economic rights to contract, sue and own property.

1868

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution Ratified

The 14th Amendment overruled Dred Scott vs. Sanford. It guaranteed that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the country and of the state in which they reside. It also stated that no state shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens, deprive any person of life, liberty or property, nor deny any person the equal protection of law without due process of law.

1875

Civil Rights Act of 1875 Passed

As the last federal civil rights act passed until 1957, it prohibited discrimination in inns, theaters and other places of public accommodation.

1883

Civil Rights Cases Overturned

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was overturned as the Supreme Court declared that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit discrimination by private individuals or businesses. This paved the way for segregation in public education.

1887

Jim Crow Looms

"Jim Crow" -- the practices of comprehensive racial segregation -- emerged. Blacks largely disappeared from juries in the South.

1896

Homer Adolph Plessy vs. J.H. Ferguson Decided

Plessy challenged an 1890 Louisiana law that required separate train cars for black Americans. The Supreme Court held that "separate but equal" facilities for white and black railroad passengers did not violate the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause. This case marked the birth of the "separate but equal" doctrine that would become the constitutional basis for segregation. Justice John Marshall Harlan -- the lone dissenter in Plessy -- argued that forced segregation stamped blacks with a badge of inferiority. That same line of argument would become a decisive factor in the Brown decision.

1899

Decision Made in Cumming vs. Board of Education of Richmond County, Ga.

The Supreme Court upheld a local school board's decision to close a free black public school due to fiscal constraints, despite the fact that the district continued to operate two free white public schools.

1908

Berea College vs. Commonwealth of Kentucky Decided

The Supreme Court upheld a Kentucky law forbidding interracial instruction at all of the state's schools and colleges.

1909

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Founded

W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary White Ovington and others founded the NAACP with a mission of eliminating lynching and fighting racial and social injustice, primarily through legal action. The NAACP became the primary tool for the legal attack on segregation, eventually taking on the Brown case.

1927

Ruling Made in Gong Lum vs. Rice

The Supreme Court held that a Mississippi school district could require a Chinese-American girl to attend a segregated black school rather than a white school. The court applied the "separate but equal" formulation of Plessy vs. Ferguson.

1935

NAACP Challenges Segregation in Graduate and Secondary Schools

Charles Hamilton Houston, of the NAACP, developed a legal strategy that would eventually lead to victory over segregation in the nation's schools through the Brown case. His rationale for attacking segregated law schools was two-pronged: The establishment of separate but equal law school facilities for black and white students would become too costly for the states, and white judges who matriculated in the nation's finest law schools could not, in good conscience, suggest that black lawyers in segregated schools received "equal" legal training.

1938

Decision Made in State of Missouri on Behalf of Gaines vs. Canada

The Supreme Court decided in favor of a black student who had been refused admission to the University of Missouri Law School.

1939

Thurgood Marshall Named Special Counsel of NAACP

Marshall eventually would become lead counsel in the Brown case.

1948

NAACP's Board of Directors Formally Endorses Marshall's View on Segregation Strategy

The NAACP decided to devote its efforts solely to an all-out attack on segregation in education, rather than pressing for the equalization of segregated facilities.

Court Decides Sipuel vs. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma

A unanimous Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to deny Lois Ada Sipuel, a black student, and any other students entrance to a state law school only on the basis of race.

1949

Briggs vs. Elliott Filed

NAACP officials met with black residents of Clarendon County, S.C. They launched a test case against segregation in public schools with hopes that at least 20 plaintiffs could be found. By November, Harry Briggs and 19 other plaintiffs were assembled, and the NAACP filed a class action lawsuit against the Clarendon County School Board. This case was one of the cases consolidated by the Supreme Court into Brown vs. Board of Education

1950

Ruling Made in McLaurin vs. Oklahoma State Regents

The Supreme Court invalidated the University of Oklahoma's requirement that a black student, admitted to a graduate program unavailable to him at the state's black school, sit in separate sections of or in spaces adjacent to the classroom, library and cafeteria. The court held that these restrictions were unconstitutional because they interfered with the student's "ability to study, to engage in discussions, and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession."

Bolling vs. Sharpe Case Filed

Charles Houston provided legal representation for the Consolidated Parents Group, which -- under the direction of Gardner Bishop -- attempted to enroll a group of black students in the all-white John Philip Sousa Junior High School in Washington, D.C. The case became one of those consolidated in the Brown case, but the court eventually filed a separate opinion on Bolling because the 14th Amendment was not applicable in Washington, D.C.

1951

Brown vs. Board of Education Filed

The case was filed on Feb. 28 in federal district court in Kansas.

Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., Filed

As a challenge to Virginia's segregated schools, Davis vs. Prince Edward County was another of the cases eventually consolidated as Brown.

Briggs vs. Elliott Goes to Trial

The U.S. District Court denied the Briggs plaintiff's request to order desegregation of Clarendon County, S.C., schools and instead ordered the equalization of black schools.

1951

Brown vs. Board of Education Goes to Trial

In August, a panel of judges at the U.S. District Court unanimously held in the Brown case that "no willful, intentional or substantial discrimination" existed in Topeka's schools. The court also found that physical facilities in white and black schools were comparable and that the lower court's decisions in Sweatt vs. Painter and McLaurin only applied to graduate education.

1952

Decision Made in Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va.

The U.S. District Court unanimously rejected the plaintiffs' request to order desegregation of Prince Edward County, Va., schools, ordering the "equalization" of black schools instead.

Five Cases Bundled Together Officially As Brown vs. Board

In October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear all five of the school desegregation cases collectively: Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware and the District of Columbia. This grouping showed school segregation as a national issue, not just a Southern one.

1953

Chief Justice Fred Vinson Jr. Dies Unexpectedly of Heart Attack

President Eisenhower nominated California Gov. Earl Warren to replace Vinson as interim chief.

1954

Warren Confirmed As Chief Justice

In March, the Senate confirmed Earl Warren as chief justice.

Court Rules in Brown vs. Board of Education

On May 17, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson and declared that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The same day, the court held that racial segregation in D.C. public schools violated the Due Process clause of the 5th Amendment in Bolling vs. Sharpe.

In the wake of the decision, the District of Columbia and some school districts in the border states began to desegregate their schools voluntarily. State legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia adopted resolutions of "interposition and nullification" that declared the court's decision to be "null, void and no effect." Various Southern legislatures passed laws that imposed sanctions on anyone who implemented desegregation. They also enacted school closing plans that authorized the suspension of public education and the disbursement of public funds to parents to send their children to private schools.

1955

Brown II Orders Passed

On May 31, the last day of the term, the Supreme Court handed down Brown II, ordering that desegregation occur with "all deliberate speed." But due to the vagueness of the term "all deliberate speed," many states were able to stall the court's order to desegregate their schools.

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Published March 2004; Last updated 04/09/04

Special Report produced by Charmere Gatson. Edited for the Web by Chris Harvey. Edited for TV by Dave Burns. Banner photo courtesy Joseph Douglas Collection, Kansas Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries 


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