Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Development of Special Education

May 17th 2019, was the 65th anniversary of perhaps the most important U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 20th century:  Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Although the specifics of the case are well known; the enormous effect it had on the educational rights of students with disabilities is less well known.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown led to advocates going to courts to secure the rights of students with disabilities to a public education.

Brown v. Board of Education as heard by the Supreme Court was actually a consolidation of five cases:  Briggs v. Elliott (1952), filed in South Carolina; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1952), filed in Kansas, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952), filed in Virginia; Gebhart v. Belton (152), filed in Delaware; and Boiling v. Sharp (1954), filed in Washington DC. The case that would become the most well-known was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

This case involved a young girl, Linda Brown, who was denied admission to an all white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas.  Her father, Oliver Brown, filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education in Topeka.  In the lawsuit, Brown challenged the “separate but equal doctrine” that the U.S. Supreme Court had announced in a case called Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  According to the Plessy decision, racially separate facilities were permissible as long as they were equal.  The ruling essentially became the justification for the Jim Crow laws, which allowed racial separate in public facilities, such as buses, movie theaters, and schools. The separate but equal doctrine would be used in areas of the country, especially the South, for 60 years.

In the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to bring lawsuits to challenge the separate but equal doctrine in public schools.  One of these challenges was Brown v. Board (1952) challenging the segregated schools in Topeka, Kansas.  The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which consolidated the five cases.  Thurgood Marshall, who was named to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, was the chief counsel of the NAACP and argued the case for the plaintiffs (Oliver Brown, et al.) before the High Court.  The defendants were represented by John W. Davis, a former presidential candidate and attorney who had argued over 100 cases before the Supreme Court.  Davis argued that states had the right to educate their children as they saw fit.

The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1953.  The Chief Justice at the time was Fred M. Vinson who believed the Plessy doctrine of separate but equal should be upheld.  Interestingly enough, John W. Davis made the following argument in his opening statement “May it please the Court, I think if the appellants’ construction of the 14th Amendment should prevail here, I am unable to see why a state would have any further right to segregate its pupils on the ground of sex, on the ground of age, or on the ground of mental capacity.”  Davis’ statement proved to be prescient!

Although John W. Davis thought that the defendants would win the case, the justices were unable to come to a conclusion.  Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter asked that the case be reheard, which it was in the 1954 term.  However, before the beginning of the 1954 term, Chief Justice Winson died.  President Dwight Eisenhower nominated a former governor of California, Earl Warren to be the next Chief Justice.  Thus, Warren would be Chief Justice during the rehearing of Brown.

Chief Justice Earl Warren showed enormous political skill in guiding the Court to the unanimous decision that “in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Segregated schools are inherently unequal.”  The Court ruled that because of segregation in the schools, the plaintiffs were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”  Chief Justice Warren also wrote that

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 that must be available to all on equal terms.”

The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was a major victory for the civil rights movement and became a foundation for further civil rights action and changes in education. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-required or state-sanctioned segregation solely on the basis of a person’s unalterable characteristics, such as race, was unconstitutional. The Court also determined that segregation solely on the basis of race violated equal protections and denied children from minority backgrounds equal educational opportunity.

When the ruling in the Brown decision was announced, Dr. Gunnar Dybwad, the executive director of the National Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children (now the Arc), called attention to this crucial decision.  He suggested that the Supreme Court’s ruling that the separate but equal doctrine was inherently unequal, the implications for the education of children with disabilities were clear.  After all, these children often had no educational facilities because they were totally excluded from receiving an education in public schools.

 In 1971, a young attorney in Pennsylvania, Thomas Gilhool, represented the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) in class action lawsuit, which was to become a seminal ruling in the history of special education.  In PARC v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, attorney Gilhool based his arguments on the Brown decision asserting that if the Court should find for the African-American children…how could states anymore segregate on the basis of sex, age, or disabilities.  A year later a lawsuit was filed against the District of Columbia in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  The case, Mill v. Board of Education (1972), was also class action lawsuit filed on behalf of seven children with varying types of disabilities. The attorney for the plaintiffs,  Stanley Herr, used the Brown decision to argue that if African-American children had a right to a public education so did children with disabilities.  The plaintiffs prevailed in this case; In fact, the judge in Mills, Judge Waddy, used a quotation from Brown in his decision.

 The decisions in the PARC and Mills cases were incredibly important in the development of special education.  These cases secured the rights of students with disabilities to receive a free public education.  These cases set a precedent for similar cases to be filed across the United States.  In the 2 1/2 years following these decisions, 46 similar cases were filed in 28 states.  Three years after the PARC and Mills decisions, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (which was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Educatoion Act in 1990).

Although in Brown, the Court was addressing the right of African-American children not to be segregated from white children in the educational process, the Court’s words were eventually applied to millions of children with disabilities.



Categories: Uncategorized

6 replies

  1. Hey Mitch, Excellent summary! Its important that folks today know the important connection of special education to the civil rights movement. Thanks! Russ

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent and helpful understanding of the comparison between cases to the Brown v. Board of Education case. Great resource. Thank you.


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