Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

Segregated America
The Battleground
Legal Campaign
  • Howard University
  • Charles Hamilton Houston
  • Preparing for Struggle
  • The NAACP
  • NAACP’s Legal Team
  • “Mr. Civil Rights”
  • Targeting Higher Education
  • Power of Precedent
  • Turning Point
Five Communities Change a Nation
The Decision

The Power of Precedent

The American legal system is based on the principle of stare decisis—legal precedent establishes the law. The strategy of civil rights lawyers was to get the Supreme Court to make a series of judgments in support of racial integration. These judgments became legal precedents and the foundation for dismantling segregation in public schools.

The legal precedents:

  • 1938   Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada
  • 1948   Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Regents
  • 1950   McLaurin v. Oklahoma
  • 1950   Sweatt v. Painter

Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938)
In the 1930s no state-funded law schools in Missouri admitted African American students. With guidance from NAACP lawyers, Lloyd Gaines, applied to the University of Missouri law school. Denied admission, Gaines was offered a scholarship to an out-of-state school. Gaines then sued the law school.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, Charles Houston persuaded the justices that offering Gaines an out-of-state scholarship was no substitute for admission. The court ruled that the state either had to establish an equal facility or admit him.

Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Regents (1948)

Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Regents (1948)

Ada Sipuel was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma Law School in 1946. With the help of the NAACP, she sued the school. Thurgood Marshall argued that separating black students, no matter what the conditions, denied them access to opportunities provided to others.

The law school admitted Sipuel rather than continue the dispute. She went on to become one of the first African American women to sit on the board of regents of Oklahoma State University. The photograph shows Marshall and Sipuel in 1948, with J. E. Fellows and Amos T. Hall.
(Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950)

Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950)

Rather than admit Heman Sweatt to its law school, the state of Texas offered to create a separate program for African Americans. The University of Oklahoma accepted George McLaurin to its graduate program in education, but separated him from other students.

Both students sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that dividing students by race in graduate programs fell short of the legal standard of separate but equal. Interaction among students, the court said, was an integral part of the educational experience.

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