Brown V. Board of Education

The iconic case that worked to desegregate public school by ruling that separate is not equal

Known simply as Brown vs. the Board of Education, the case included five individual cases of public-school segregation that were brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. These cases included: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.), Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel. The case argued that the separation of black and white students violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under law. It was not until 1954 that the court ruled that “separate by equal” was “inherently unequal”

Following the court’s decision, states lacked direction in desegregating their public schools. Without a formal order, it was left to the attorney general of each state to initiate legislation that prohibited segregation. In Chicago, schools remained segregated; schools with predominately Black students continued to receive less funding and resources than schools with white students. Black students were confined to small, underfunded, and overcrowded schools, some class sizes as much as 25% greater than those in white schools. When questioned about the racial segregation found in Chicago’s schools, Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin Willis refused to acknowledge the discrepancy. Once overcrowding in Black schools became too much, rather than moving students to nearby schools with white students, Superintendent Willis brought in mobile classrooms to fill vacant lots on school property. These units became publicly known as “Willis Wagons” and were seen as a way to confine Black students to their schools

Thus, Chicago activists were still working to bring about desegregation nearly a decade after the court ruling. In 1963, activists with the support of Martin Luther King Jr. organized a protest against the Chicago school system, encouraging students to boycott school on October 22, 1963 and calling it “Freedom Day.” An estimated 225,000 students, nearly half of the students within the school district, boycotted school on Freedom Day; ten-thousand protestors took to the streets surrounding government buildings in attempt to pressure administration to act on school segregation. Despite their efforts, Willis remained in office and segregatory practices within the school system continued.

In the 1970s, calls to desegregate schools continued, prompting the federal government to intervene. In 1980, the federal government issued a Consent Decree that forced local government to issue a plan to desegregate schools. By this time, Chicago was experiencing “White Flight,” and many white students left the city and the public school system, reporting nearly 75% loss in white student population from 1970 to 1990. Many white students left to attend private schools rather than stay in the public school system; nearly two-thirds of the white students in Chicago enrolled in private school by the 1990s. Today, Chicago public schools are still dealing with the effects of school segregation. Although Brown v. the Board of Education did not bring direct change to the Chicago Public School District, it did urge activists to continue the fight for racial equality and offered a foundation for the federal government to bring further legal action in the fight against school segregation.

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  1. United States Courts. "History – Brown v. Board of Education reenactment," accessed February 18, 2022. Available Online.
  2. United States Courts, "History," n.d.
  3. Blakemore, Erin. "Why MLK encouraged 225,000 Chicago kids to cut class in 1963,", January 29, 2021. Available Online.
  4. Homel, Michael W. "Willis Wagons." Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. Available Online.
  5. Martin, Alison. (2021, May 20). "This week in history: Brown v. Board of Education fight continues in Chicago 9 years after landmark ruling." Chicago Sun Times. Available Online.
  6. Blakemore, "Why MLK," 2021.
  7. Blakemore, "Why MLK," 2021.
  8. Rury, John L. "School Desegregation." Encyclopedia of Chicago. Available Here.