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Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 283 (1954), one of the most famous United States Supreme Court cases of the 20th Century, effectively ended legal racial segregation in U.S. public schools.
Brown expressly overturned the 1896 precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which held that states could constitutionally pass segregation laws, so long as the public facilities provided to the different races were “separate but equal.” In Brown, five cases from states across the country were consolidated.
In each case, black children had been refused admission to local public schools for white children and had sued for redress in state court. The position of the children (through their representatives) was that not only were the public schools provided for black children unequal to those provided for white children, but they could never be made equal.
Writing for the unanimous Court, Chief Justice Warren held that “[s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and thus violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Although the subsequent involvement of federal district courts in supervising the desegregation of public schools was not uncontroversial, Brown was a historic victory for the American Civil Rights Movement for its holding that, at least when it comes to public schools, segregation laws were unconstitutional.