The day the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling was announced — May 17, 1954 — is a milestone in the civil rights movement, sounding a death knoll for legalized segregation.
Before he became a Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall led the arguments made by the NAACP on behalf of black children in Topeka, Kan., who were denied access to all-white schools, because of laws permitting “separate but equal facilities,” a legal doctrine that had stood for 58 years, since 1896 with the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Marshall argued that segregation was inherently unequal.
“Those same kids in Virginia and South Carolina — and I have seen them do it — play together,” Marshall argued before the court in 1953. “They play on farms together, they go down the road together, they separate to go to school, they come out of school and play ball together. They have to be separated in school. There is some magic to it. You can have them voting together, you can have them not restricted because of the law in the houses they live in. You can have them going to the same state university and the same college, but if they go to elementary and high school, the world will fall apart.”
As executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he had already argued many civil rights cases to the justices over the previous decade. Cecilia “Cissy” Marshall said her husband would talk to the Supreme Court justices like they were friends. His style was easy. “He was so calm and collected. He would argue before the court like he was talking to his old friends,” she said.
Thurgood Marshall argued school segregation violated individual rights under the 14th Amendment. He told the justices that any continuation of school segregation was intended to keep people who were slaves “as near that stage as possible.”
He argued that unlike preceding cases, the justices could not ignore the racism behind the law. “They can’t take race out of this case,” he argued. “From the day this case was filed until this moment, nobody has in any form or fashion, despite the fact I made it clear in the opening argument that I was relying on it, done anything to distinguish this statute from the Black Codes, which they must admit, because nobody can dispute, say anything anybody wants to say, one way or the other, the 14th Amendment was intended to deprive the states of power to enforce Black Codes or anything else like it. We charge that they are Black Codes. They obviously are Black Codes if you read them. They haven’t denied that they are Black Codes, so if the court wants to very narrowly decide this case, they can decide it on that point.”
Sixty-two years later, Cissy Marshall, now 88, remembers certain details of the day the 9-to-0 decision was handed down, as if it happened yesterday.
She was in New York, working at the NAACP’s offices on 43rd Street.
Thurgood Marshall and the legal team that included James M. Nabrit and George Hayes had traveled to Washington on a tip the justices would reveal the ruling. “They were expecting the decision,” she said. “They were getting hints the opinion was coming down. You are not supposed to know anything of these things. But a grapevine gets going.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The courtroom was electric.
“I don’t know how, but they flew back to New York,” Cissy Marshall said. “Everybody celebrated in the office. We drank whatever we could. I don’t think anybody had any money for champagne.”
They were all dressed in suits. They might take their jackets off.
Then after a couple of hours of celebrating, Thurgood Marshall said something that was prescient: “I don’t know about you fools, but I’m going back to work. Our work has just begun,” Cissy Marshall recalled.
“He was always ahead of everybody. He was such a realistic person, really. And he knew what was coming,” she said. “He always anticipated what would happen in the future.
“He knew we still have to work so hard because people aren’t going to give in right away. There is still so much opposition and still much work to be done on a local level. He knew all of that,” she said. “People were not going to accept it right then and there and everything would be hunky-dory. No. he anticipated all this.”