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Segregated Schools Ruled Unconstitutional: May 17, 1954

This text comes from our book, The American Venture.

One of the most significant acts of Eisenhower’s presidency was his appointment of Earl Warren of California as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Warren would, in the coming years, preside over cases that would change the character of American society. The first of these, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, undermined one of the institutions of post-Reconstruction America: racial segregation in schools.

Earl Warren
Earl Warren

The case arose when Oliver Brown, a black man residing in Topeka, Kansas, brought the Topeka Board of Education to trial for refusing to allow his third-grade daughter to attend a white school. Assisted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), Brown’s attorneys argued that the very existence of segregation told blacks that they were inferior to whites. The United States District Court agreed and said school segregation affected black children’s motivation to learn. The court said, however, that it had to follow the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which had decided that “separate but equal” accommodations for whites and blacks in public transportation did not contradict the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. What applied to transportation, the court concluded, applied to schools. The court thus ruled against Brown.

In 1952, Brown and the NAACP appealed the district court’s decision to the United States Supreme Court. In the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote that it was impossible to determine whether the authors of the 14th Amendment had desegregation of schools in mind when they wrote that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Since this was so, wrote Warren, the court must consider what place public education held in modern American life. Whether or not the 14th Amendment was intended to apply to schools was unimportant. The question for Warren was: did segregation, in 1954, deprive students of equal protection?

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted after a second arrest for helping to organize the Montgomery bus boycot
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted after a second arrest for helping to organize the Montgomery bus boycot

Warren admitted that black and white schools had been becoming more equal. However, because segregation gave blacks a sense of inferiority, Warren concluded that segregated schools were not equal and so “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” In segregated public schools, black students were, Warren wrote, “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Segregated schools were, he said, thus unconstitutional. In May 1955, the Supreme court followed up its Brown ruling with another that demanded that desegregation must go forward with “all deliberate speed.”

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

In 1954, the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, was living in Los Angeles, California, where he had arrived in 1941. In 1953, Stravinsky had agreed with a librettist, his friend, the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, to write an opera that would tell of the recreation of the world after a nuclear disaster. Thomas’ death in November of 1953 ended that project but inspired this piece, scored for tenor, string quartet, and four trombones: In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. It premiered in Los Angeles in September of 1954.

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