Brown v. Board of Education—the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated public schools—turns 60 this year, and if someone were tasked with identifying the most interesting parts of the case in order to repurpose it for a Law & Order special, what would that episode look like?
Who were the major characters? Which one of the nine Supreme Court justices held out on his decision until the last minute, and then eventually changed his mind? What was special about the plaintiff, and why did he make it a credible case?
And since the last five minutes of any legal drama are especially juicy because viewers want to see how the courtroom reacts to the verdict, how did the country respond to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that made the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional?
Here are some interesting facts about that case that The Root culled from the government’s dusty old archives.
1. The Legal Strategy
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, with its chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, hinged its legal strategy on one objective—attacking the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” argument—so that the “separate” component would crumble. If Marshall and his cohorts could prove that black and white public schools were not equal because of tangible things like the curriculum or the school’s facilities, or intangible things like how black students were psychologically harmed because of the separation, then, the NAACP LDF believed, the Supreme Court would overturn the decision that required public schools to be racially segregated.
2. Who’s Brown?
There were actually 13 plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the board of education in Topeka, Kan. The “Brown” in Brown v. Board stood for a man by the name of Oliver L. Brown. The NAACP LDF thought to make him the lead plaintiff because he was a man—yes, that’s the patriarchal truth. There was the idea that a male plaintiff—and an upstanding African-American father who was a welder and assistant pastor by trade—would be looked upon advantageously by the courts. His little girl, Linda Brown, had to travel 1 mile to attend the segregated black school even though there was a white school only seven blocks from her house.