Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

“ O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be! ”
From Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education marked a turning point in the history of race relations in the United States. On May 17, 1954, the Court stripped away constitutional sanctions for segregation by race, and made equal opportunity in education the law of the land.

Brown v. Board of Education reached the Supreme Court through the fearless efforts of lawyers, community activists, parents, and students. Their struggle to fulfill the American dream set in motion sweeping changes in American society, and redefined the nation’s ideals.

Segregated America

The end of the Civil War had promised racial equality, but by 1900 new laws and old customs created a segregated society that condemned Americans of color to second-class citizenship.

The Battleground

As African Americans and other minority groups began the struggle for civil rights, they strengthened their own schools and fought against segregated education.

Legal Campaign

Beginning in the 1930s, African American lawyers from Howard University law school and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People campaigned to dismantle constitutionally-sanctioned segregation.

Five Communities

In the early 1950s, African Americans from five different communities across the country bravely turned to the courts to demand better educational opportunities for their children.

The Decision

In 1954, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court produced a unanimous decision to overturn Plessy vs. Ferguson and changed the course of American history.


Today, thanks in part to the victorious struggle in the Brown case, most Americans believe that a racially integrated, ethnically diverse society and educational system is a worthy goal, though they may disagree deeply about how to achieve it.