The Brown case and the Rule of Law
It was in 1954 when the rule of law prevailed against the rule of men— when the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren refused to fawn over the obsolete doctrine of “equal but separate” established and followed for over half a century.
In the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, the Warren Court affirmed the rights of individuals to equal protection of the laws by dismantling the age-old doctrine of “equal but separate” announced in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, in 1896.
In a class suit filed by 13 parents in behalf of their twenty children against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the U.S. District Court in 1951, it was complained that the young Negro students were denied admission to schools attended by white children. The complainants averred that the denial of admission by schools attended by white students violated the rights of their children in the Fourteenth Amendment, which is the right to equal protection of the laws.
The question that was raised before the Supreme Court was whether segregation of children in public schools only on the basis of race deprives such children of the minority group of equal protection of the laws and equal educational opportunities. The Court answered in the affirmative through a unanimous 9-0 decision, declaring that the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by the Ferguson case “has no place” in the field of public education.
To wit, Warren wrote: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”
For over half a century, a string of cases followed the doctrine enunciated in the Ferguson case, which was sanctioned under the force of law the segregation of the white and the Negro children. The ruling simply states that there can be equality through separation so long as the physical facilities and tangible factors are equal.
But this thinking was slowly eroded by the passage of time when the world came to embrace the spirit of unity and equality. After the Second World War, a super body of nations now called the United Nations was formed in 1945 to assist in the cooperation in international law, global security, social prosperity, economic progress and human rights concerns.
It was then in 1950, a year before the birth of the Brown I case, when UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), a specialized agency of the U.N., issued a statement signed by internationally-acclaimed leading researches, titled The Race Question.
In a poignant statement, UNESCO criticized the foundations of scientific theories that were popularized at the early quarters of the 20th century. The international agency also observed that these theories were supported by established governments like the toppled Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, which actively formulated racial policies against the Jews.
The 10-page declaration came up with five scientifically established facts concerning individual and group differences, which postulates that the basic characteristics which can be used as a basis for classifications are physical and psychological, that there is no proof that human beings vary in mental capacity, that there is no proof that race mixture produces bad results, among others.
UNESCO stated the following: “The importance which the problem of race has acquired in the modern world scarcely needs to be pointed out. Mankind will not soon forget the injustices and crimes which give such tragic overtones to the word “race”. It was inevitable that UNESCO should take a position in a controversy so closely linked not only with its goals but also with its very nature. For, like war, the problem of race which directly affects millions of human lives and causes countless conflicts has its roots “in the minds of men.”
It then concludes that racism is a vicious and mean expression of caste spirit. Further more, it states, to wit:
“[F]or man is born with drives toward cooperation, and unless these drives are satisfied, men and nations alike fall ill. Man is born a social being who can reach his fullest development only through interaction with his fellows. The denial at any point of this social bond between man and man brings with it disintegration. In this sense, every man is his brother’s keeper. For every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, because he is involved in mankind.”
The Race Question was so strong a force after the Second World War and was instrumental in bringing the global society to the shore of maturity. But the most significant result came when the Warren Court, which appeared to have been influenced by the statement, upheld the rights of not only the white people, but also the Negro group, to the equal protection of the laws and equal educational opportunities.
This landmark case was not just about the clash between two races— the dominant white and the inferior black— but also about the clash between the rule of law and the rule of man, and of the conflict between administrative law and the provisions of the Constitution.
While the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution recognizes individual’s equal protection of the laws, a wide array of Supreme Court decided cases still followed that doctrine of “separate but equal”, which was reaffirmed by the Ferguson case in 1896 up to the case of Brown in 1954. Here, there was a clear conflict between two substantive laws— the Constitutional law and the Administrative law. The first is the basis or the fountainhead of all laws, whether they be statutes, ordinances, and presidential decrees. The second refers to the body of laws that governs the activities of administrative agencies of the government whose functions include adjudication, enforcement and legislation or rulemaking
The Court was called upon to determine not only whose rights were to be upheld, but which between the provisions of the Constitution and the power of an administrative body it was going to uphold. The Warren Court defended the rights of every individual, both black and white, to equal protection of the laws and equal educational opportunities mandated by the Constitution when it announced that such “segregation is a denial” of such rights.
The Supreme Court cited the case of McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637, which states that: “. . . his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession.”
It was held in said case that “conditions under which appellant is required to receive his education deprive him of his personal and present right to the equal protection of the laws”:
(a) Any restriction imposed on the appellant impair his ability to learn, to deal with others and exchange views with other fellow students.
(b) That appellant may still be set apart by his fellow students and may be in no better position when these restrictions are removed is irrelevant, for there is a constitutional difference between restrictions imposed by the State which prohibit the intellectual commingling of students and the refusal of students to commingle where the State presents no such bar.
(c) The appellant must get the same treatment at the hands of the State as students of other races.
Chief Justice Warren pointed out that any segregation sanctioned by law has a negative impact on the educational and mental development of Negro children. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” he said.
This followed the statement made by the UNESCO scholars who said that “all normal human beings are capable of learning to share in a common life, to understand the nature of mutual service and reciprocity, and to respect social obligations and contracts.”
The Court’s decision then led to America’s maturation of its democracy and to the reaffirmation of the inherent rights of every American citizen, both black and white.
This also addressed the limits of the authority of the government and its administrative bodies in dealing with its citizens. Black children were deprived of their rights to equal treatment through segregation with the sanction of the law.
The noble objective of the then Warren Court, when the case that later became America’s landmark case reached its domain, was to reconcile the differences between the authority of the state and the inherent rights of the people. This is because there can be no equality in separation, as what the doctrine enunciated by the now obsolete Ferguson case tried to point out.
The Brown I case was then followed by the Brown II in 1955, which declared unconstitutional racial discrimination in public schools. It also mandated that all provisions of federal, state or local ordinances allowing such discrimination “must yield to this principle.”
Brown II specifically galvanized its earlier ruling in 1954. As a result, the judgment in the Delaware case, one of the four cases brought to the Supreme Court, ordered the immediate access of the plaintiffs to schools attended by white children.
Such a case then became the basis of the black people in invoking their rights at the hands of the state and before the law as faithfully recognized by the Court under Chief Justice Warren. It also led to a broader understanding of civil liberties and human rights, the relationship between the state and its subjects, and the symbiotic relationship between the Constitution and the governmental authorities that are tasked with the implementation of the provisions of the former.
The abolition of the doctrine of “equal but separate” by Brown I was then followed by a string of important cases, such as NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, decided in 1958, on the privacy of membership lists and free association of members; Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1, also in 1958, where the Federal Court call for the enforcement of desegregation; Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454, 1960, which outlawed racial separation in public transports; Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241, in 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in both public and private places; Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 1967, which banned the restriction on the marriage between a black and white; Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1, 1971, which established bussing; and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 127 S. Ct. 2738, 2007, which frowned upon using race as the sole determining factor for assigning students to school.
Today, people in America, whether white, black, brown and yellow, are breathing the air of equality— and never separation— because of this moral decision that not only changed America but also the rest of the world.
In the end, it is the rule of law— and not the whims and caprices of those people in power— that prevailed.