Latest news


DATE OF EVENT: Monday, May 17, 1954

DATE PUBLISHED: Monday, May 17, 1954, in The Kansas City Star

Washington, May 17 (AP) — The Supreme court ruled unanimously today that segregation of Negro and white students in public schools is unconstitutional. But it said it will hear further arguments this fall on how and when to end this practice.

Thus many months will elapse before the historic ruling actually wipes out the separate schools now in existence in many states.

Chief Justice Warren read the court’s opinion, which declared:

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal (facilities) has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

“Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs (Negro parents) and others similarly situated for whom the action has been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment.

“This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment.”

The fourteenth amendment was adopted after the Civil war primarily for the benefit of slaves freed by President Lincoln. It says no state may deny any person due process and equal protection of the law, nor abridge their privileges or immunities.

Warren went on to say that in order to have full assistance of all the parties concerned, the cases will be restored to the court’s docket and that new arguments will be heard on two questions asked by the tribunal before it heard its second argument of the issues last December.

The states were told to put in applications for appearances by September 15 and to submit any briefs on the arguments by October 1. The court’s new term begins October 4.

One of these questions involves the time issue; that is, when to order schools in states which now require segregation to admit Negro children along with white children.

The other question raised the issue of whether the court should appoint a special master to recommend specific terms for its decrees, or whether the cases should be sent back to lower federal courts to see that segregation practices are ended.

The cases decided today involve schools in South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.

But lawyers said a ruling against segregation would affect a total of seventeen states which have laws requiring separation of the races in schools, plus three other states having laws which permit — but do not require — segregation.

The court was told that the seventeen states and the District of Columbia had 70 per cent of the nation’s Negro population, or 10,522,495 Negroes out of a 15,042,692 total. States with permissive segregation had an additional 1 per cent.

States whose laws require segregation were listed as Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

States with permissive segregation were listed as New Mexico, Wyoming and Kansas.

The whole issue has been an inflammatory one in parts of the South. There has been talk in at least three states — Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina — of abolishing the public schools in event of such a Supreme court ruling.

The decision does not apply to private schools. Nor, on its face, does it affect the “separate but equal” doctrine as applied to travel on railroads and other public conveyances solely within states which have such laws.

Reaction of Southerners in Congress was, by and large, grim.

Senator Russell (D-Ga.) called the decision “a flagrant abuse of judicial power.”

“Ways must be found,” Russell said, “to check the tendency of the court to disregard to the constitutions and the precedents of able and unbiased judges to decided cases solely on the basis of the personal predilections of some of its members as to political, economic and social questions.”

Senator Daniel (D-Tex.) said it was “disappointing,” adding: “I do not see how they could arrive at that opinion.”

From Senator Ellender (D-La.) came a prediction it will have “violent repercussions” if efforts are made to put it into effect immediately.

Senator Holland (D.-Fla.) after reading Warren’s opinion, said, “This is a new law, make no mistake about it. And it appears to be final.”

In an apparent effort to preclude any advance leak of today’s historic ruling, the court took the action — unprecedented in recent years — of withholding printed copies of the decision until it had been read in full from the bench.

After reviewing a long line of decisions bearing on the “separate but equal” doctrine, Chief Justice Warren wrote:

“We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal education opportunities? We believe that it does.” Warren said the court’s decision “cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved.” He added:

“We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.”

In approaching the problem, Warren said, “we cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the fourteenth amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy vs. Ferguson was written.

“We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its place in American life throughout the nation.

“Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs (Negroes) of the equal protection of the laws.

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society …

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” It was at this point in the opinion that Warren said the court believes segregation denies Negro children of equal educational opportunities.

In the District of Columbia case, Warren said the decision announced in the case of the state also would apply to Washington but under a different section of the Constitution.

“We hold,” Warren said, “that racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the fifth amendment to the Constitution.”

The court has ruled that the fifth amendment applies only to the federal government — not to the states.

In the District of Columbia case, Warren said:

“Segregation in public education is not reasonably related to any proper governmental objective, and thus it imposes on Negro children of the district a burden that constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty in violation of the due process clause.”

Attorney General Brownell, who was in the courtroom and heard the reading of Warren’s opinions, said he had no comment. Dean Acheson, former secretary of state, also in the courtroom, told newsmen the court had delivered a “great and statesmanlike decision.”

Last December when the cases were argued a second time, Thurgood Marshall, Negro lawyer of New York City, pleaded with the Supreme court to declare that all public school segregation laws are invalid. Marshall is special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization which spearheaded the attack on separate schools.

John W. Davis, Democratic presidential nominee in 1924, led the arguments against integration by appearing before the court on behalf of South Carolina. He said the Negro might lose more than he gained and insisted the right to establish separate schools had been so often approved by the courts and legislators that it should not now be regarded as open to debate.

Marshall, on hand today for the ruling, told newsmen he expects the South to accept the court’s ruling.

“The people of the South are just as law-abiding as any other good citizens,” he said.

James M. Nabritt, N.A.A.C.P. counsel in the District of Columbia case, expressed the hope that the District of Columbia would “go ahead and integrate the District of Columbia schools now and not wait for October.”

He said he hoped the schools would be integrated by the start of the next school year.