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.
When Oliver Brown tried to enroll Linda in the white elementary school, she described how she sat outside the principal’s office and could hear shouting between her father and school administrators. I think Samuel L. Jackson, or perhaps Denzel Washington, would nail the part.
3. One Case Actually Embodied Five
By the time Brown was heard by the Supreme Court, there were four other cases attached to it: Briggs v. Elliott, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Gebhart v. Belton and Bolling v. Sharpe—all funded by the NAACP.
One case was initiated by a student protest (kudos to them), and another case actually experienced a small victory in a lower court, but all five pushed for school desegregation and made it to the highest court in the land.
4. The Memo From the Supporting Cast
It’s nice to know that all of the justices—save one—did not personally support segregation. The court’s ruling to desegregate schools was ultimately a unanimous decision, but Justice Stanley Forman Reed was not initially on board because of the issue of states’ rights and how segregation might actually be benefiting African Americans. Other justices also had reservations and concerns about whether or not the Supreme Court had the power to do away with the law put forth by Plessy v. Ferguson.
Justice Robert H. Jackson—who was pro-desegregation—received a memo from one of his young clerks. The clerk argued in the memo, “I realize it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position […] but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed.”
That young clerk’s name was William H. Rehnquist, who joined the Supreme Court in 1972 after being nominated by President Richard Nixon. He became chief justice in 1986 during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Gasp!
5. The Newbie Rallied the Vote
During the arguments, one of the justices—the chief justice, at that—Fred Vinson Jr., died unexpectedly from a heart attack. As fate would have it, his successor, Justice Earl Warren (a former governor of California), played a key role in rallying the other justices and getting them to reach a consensus that favored desegregation. Warren drafted the court’s opinion that argued that the “separate but equal” doctrine legalized by Plessy violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and, therefore, was unconstitutional.
6. The Last of the Mohicans
When the Supreme Court handed down its verdict desegregating public schools, a few states adhered to the law of the land and did so voluntarily. However, there were some misfit state legislatures in Southern states like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina that tried to circumvent the results that Brown would bring about.
For instance, some states adopted resolutions that rendered the court’s Brown decision “null and void” (child, please), and others gave out vouchers to white parents so that they could send their students to private schools. Some states passed laws that would sanction anyone who implemented desegregation. These states intentionally dragged their feet and resisted the Brown ruling with every legal, economic and social weapon they had, but the court’s second order in 1955 to implement the ruling with “all deliberate speed” eventually put a stop to all that cussin’ and fussin’.
Read more at The Root about the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board:
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film's most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.