Plessy to Loving

Segregation (Separate is Unequal)

The issue of whether public facilities may be segregated based on race first arose in the context of transportation, not education.  In the 1896 case of Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court concluded that a Louisiana law requiring whites and blacks to ride in separate railroad cars did not violate the Equal Protection Clause.  In what by today’s standards seems bizarre, Justice Brown wrote that the law did not “stamp the colored race with a badge of inferiority” and that any such suggestion is “soley because the colored race chooses to place that construction on it.”  In a famous and eloquent dissent in Plessy, Justice John Harlan argued, “Our Constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.”

Beginning in the 1930s, the NAACP, under the leadership of African-American attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, began its assault on the “separate but equal” doctrine announced in Plessy.  Houston chose to concentrate his efforts on segregation in public education, where he thought the adverse effects of the enforced racial separation could be most easily demonstrated. 

In 1938, Houston persuaded the Supreme Court that Missouri’s refusal to provide legal education for blacks within its own borders (Missouri sent its qualified black law students to neighboring states’ schools, paying the tuition) denied blacks the equal protection of the laws.  In subsequent victories in the Court, the NAACP gave teeth to the “equal” part of separate but equal: states would have to ensure that separate educational programs were truly equal in terms of resources, reputation, and other measures. 

Image of Charles Hamilton Houston
1991:  Prof. Barack Obama on C. Hamilton Houston

In 1954, the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  “Racially segregated schools,” the Court concluded, are “inherently unequal.”  The Court found support for its decision in studies that indicated that minority students learn better in racially mixed classrooms.  The next year, in Brown II, the Court announced a decision outlining its plan for implementing racial desegregation in the schools.  The Court took a cautious approach, remanding the cases to district courts with orders to integrate the schools “with all deliberate speed.”

As it turned out, there was a lot more deliberation than speed, and a decade after the Brown decision, only a small percentage of black children in the Deep South attended schools with white children.  Opposition to Brown was intense in some places.  Governors stood in schoolhouse doors and angry whites terrorized blacks. In some places, such as at Little Rock’s Central High, integration was only achieved after a powerful show of force by federal troops.

In one of the school districts involved in the 1954 school desegregation cases, Prince Edward, Virginia, county officials decided to close public schools altogether rather than integrate.  Tuition benefits were provided to children to attend private schools, but the only private schools operating in the county had white-only admission policies.  In 1964, an impatient Supreme Court found Prince Edward’s closing of the public schools to violate equal protection, and indicated that federal courts were empowered to order the opening of schools and to order the raising of taxes to pay for them, if necessary.  “The time for mere deliberate speed has run out,” the Court said.

Justice Thurgood Marshall Digital Exhibit — Harris County Robert W. Hainsworth Law Library

Thurgood Marshall

Associate Justice

Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 2, 1908 to Episcopalian parents, Norma Williams and William Marshall. Thurgood Marshall was the grandson of a slave. His father, William Marshall, instilled in him from youth an appreciation for the United States Constitution and the rule of law. After completing high school in 1925, Thurgood followed his brother, William Aubrey Marshall, at the historically black Lincoln University in Chester, Pennsylvania. Just before graduation, he married his first wife, Vivian “Buster” Burey. Their twenty-five year marriage ended with her death from cancer in 1955. He married his second wife, Cecilia Suyat in 1955. Justice Marshall died on January 24, 1993. He was survived by two children.

Marshall graduated in 1930 from Lincoln University. That same year, he applied to the University of Maryland Law School, but was denied admission because he was Black. Marshall sought admission and was accepted at the Howard University Law School. Marshall graduated from Howard University Law School in 1933, ranking first in his class.

Law Practice:
Marshall began his legal career as counsel to the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Marshall’s first major court case came in 1933 when he successfully sued the University of Maryland to admit a young African American Amherst University graduate named Donald Gaines Murray. He joined the national legal staff in 1936 and in 1938 became Chief Legal Officer. In 1940, the NAACP created the Legal Defense and Education Fund, with Marshall as its director and Counsel. For more than twenty years, Marshall coordinated the NAACP effort to end racial segregation.

In 1954, he argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka before the Supreme Court of the United States, a case in which racial segregation in United States public schools was declared unconstitutional. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a Southern state’s exclusion of African-American voters from primary elections (Smith v. Allwright, 1944), state judicial enforcement of of racial “restrictive covenants” in housing (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948), and “separate but equal” facilities for African-American professionals and graduate students in state universities (Sweatt v. Painter, 1950).