Brown v. Board of Education, Document I: Unanimous Majority Opinion

Do you use document-based questions in your classroom?

This winter the Bill of Rights Institute is blogging a document-based question on the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Each weekly post will feature an excerpted document related to the case, along with some questions to guide your thinking on it. Each document should be used to address the question: “Assess the role played by the Court as the protector of individual rights against the tyranny of the majority in Brown v. Board of Education.”

Check out our previous posts for Document A, an excerpt from the Virginia criminal code; Document B, a section of the Fourteenth Amendment; Document C, an excerpt from the majority opinion of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); Document D, an excerpt from the dissenting opinion in PlessyDocument E, a photo of a Washington, DC public school classroom; Document F, a picture of African American schoolgirls in a classroom; Document G, a photo of a segregated classroom; and Document H, a map of the U.S. by segregation laws.

Unanimous Majority Opinion, Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the [Fourteenth] Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Fergusonwas written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. …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….

To separate [students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone. …Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson this finding is amply supported by modern authority…

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 … are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

>How did the Brown decision overturn Plessy v. Ferguson in Document B?

>On what grounds did the Court base its decision?


Check back each week to see the next document and how it might change your thinking on this important question that affects all public school teachers and students in the U.S.! If you are enjoying this DBQ – be sure to check out our curriculum Supreme Court DBQs: Exploring the Cases the Changed History.

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