Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

December 13, 1953

Guest post by Jeffrey Joynt, History MA student at Arizona State University.

The Headline Read: “The Court Now Has the Big Issue.” It marked the beginning of the end for “separate but equal.” Defined by the Supreme Court decision on Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), separate but equal accommodations for Blacks was legal and was the basis for the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that were so prevalent in the early 1950s, not just in southern states, but in some northern states as well.

In early December of 1953, lawyers for the NAACP, with support from Attorney General Herbert Brownell, argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States that segregation in schools was unconstitutional and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. On the opposing side, four states, Virginia, South Carolina, Kansas, and Delaware, along with the District of Columbia, argued their points (lumped into one case, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education) that the high court had no jurisdiction in this state issue.

In an Atlanta Daily World article “Leaders Praise Brownell Brief” just two weeks earlier, some southern officials, in a response to a brief submitted to the Supreme Court by Attorney General Brownell, cited states’ rights and declared the issue beyond the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. The Daily World article also cited Representative E. C. Clark as saying that Brownell was attempting to circumvent the will of Congress, which “has refused year in and year out, to pass laws destroying segregation.”

Whether Brownell’s brief urging the court to “declare segregation in public schools unconstitutional,” was a determining factor in the high court’s decision is not known, but on May 17, 1954, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court concluded that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The 1954 landmark decision by the Supreme Court fueled the fires of the civil rights movement and sparked a revolution—a precursor to activists like Rosa Parks, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Dr. Martin Luther King. The “big issue” of “separate but equal” was answered.

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