A Look Back at Brown v. Board of Education
In honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in
Brown v. Board of Education, Oyez and ISCOTUS are posting the transcript from the two rounds of oral arguments that led up to the May 17, 1954, ruling.
Here is a quick setting of the scene. The first round of arguments took place in December 1952. The Chief Justice at this time was Fred Vinson, who had written important decisions striking down segregation in higher education two years earlier but who was an uncertain vote when it came to segregation in grade schools. He was an active questioner during oral arguments. Other notably engaged justices were Felix Frankfurter, who sympathized with desegregation as a cause but was unsure whether the courts should take a leading role; Stanley Reed, a Kentuckian who was the most personally uncomfortable of the brethren with the prospect of racial integration; and Hugo Black, an Alabaman who had by this point renounced his past support for segregation (including membership in the Ku Klux Klan) and come out as a strong believer that segregated schools violated the Constitution.
The lawyer representing the African American parents in Topeka, Kansas, who were challenging the state’s segregation policy was Robert L. Carter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (His boss, Thurgood Marshall, argued the companion case that came out of South Carolina, while other civil rights lawyers argued the cases from Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.) The lawyer representing Kansas was Paul E. Wilson, an assistant to the Attorney General of Kansas who was arguing his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court (indeed, prior to his point he had never even been to the nation’s capitol).
After hearing oral arguments in the five consolidated cases, the justices remained sharply divided on what to do. By the spring of 1953, with the Court still divided, Justice Frankfurter suggested that the Court ask for reargument. It was a transparent delaying tactic, but all the justices were in agreement that a sharply divided Court on this critically volatile question would do more harm than good. Frankfurter framed a few questions for the lawyers to consider (including one about the history of the framing of the Fourteenth Amendment that sent the lawyers off to get help from historians), and a new round of oral arguments were scheduled for late 1953. By the time Robert Carter and Paul Wilson again stood before the Court, a new man sat at the center of the bench. Chief Justice Vinson had died of a sudden heart attack the previous summer, and President Eisenhower had followed through on a campaign promise and appointed the Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, to Vinson’s seat. Warren had been on the bench just two months when he was faced with the school desegregation cases.
One note about the Kansas case: Kansas was already in the process of abandoning mandated school segregation prior to the first round of oral arguments. There was little enthusiasm among the political leaders of the state to defend its school segregation statute (which was one reason the inexperienced Wilson had been handed the case). Wilson himself was no supporter of segregation, but he felt that the issue should be left to the states to decide. By the time the 1953 reargument came, a desegregation plan in Kansas was already underway. So much of the discussion in this case was about whether the case was “moot”—that is, whether there was any dispute left for the Court to resolve.