Equal Protection and Affirmative Action

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. Dealing with the principle of Equal Protection, this lesson asks students to assess the role played by the Court as the protector of individual rights against the tyranny of the majority.

Founding Principles

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

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Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

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Federalism

The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Liberty image

Liberty

Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Case Background

After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to grant citizenship to former slaves and protect them from civil rights violations in their home states. Public schools were relatively rare throughout the United States, but were often segregated by race where they existed. The same Congress that passed the Fourteenth Amendment created racially segregated schools for the District of Columbia.

Beginning in 1877, many states passed “Jim Crow” laws requiring segregation in public places. Jim Crow laws were adopted in every southern state as well as some in the North. Louisiana’s policy requiring that blacks sit in separate railcars from whites was challenged and upheld in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The Court held that there was nothing inherently unequal—nor anything unconstitutional—about separate accommodations for races.

In the twentieth century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began a litigation campaign designed to bring an end to state-mandated segregation, calling attention to the shabby accommodations provided for blacks, as well as arguing the damaging psychological effects that segregation had on black school children. One case was brought on behalf of Linda Brown, a third-grader from Topeka, Kansas. Several additional school segregation cases were combined into one, known as Brown v. Board of Education. This case reached the Supreme Court in 1953.

The Brown v. Board of Education case overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that allowed segregation. This Homework Help video explores the reasoning the Court used to make this landmark decision.

Key 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.

Directions

Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-K. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-K, as well as your own knowledge of history.

Materials

Documents you will examine:

  1. Virginia Criminal Code, 1847
  2. Section of the Fourteenth Amendment, 1868
  3. Majority Opinion, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
  4. Dissenting Opinion, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
  5. “Washington, D.C. Public Schools, 1st Div-Class Making Geometric Forms with Paper,” 1899
  6. “African American Schoolgirls in Classroom, Learning to Sew,” 1899
  7. “Crowded Segregated Classroom,” ca. 1940s
  8. Segregation Laws Map, 1953
  9. Unanimous Majority Opinion, Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
  10. Majority Opinion, Brown II, 1955
  11. “Supreme Court Decision,” 1954

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