The NAACP’s primary goal upon its founding in 1909 was to tackle racial inequality by means of legal action, hoping to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the organization’s earliest victories came in 1938, when the Supreme Court ruled in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada that the University of Missouri had to build an entirely new law school for blacks or simply integrate them into the existing all-white school.
In 1946, the Supreme Court further chipped away at the “separate but equal” doctrine when it ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that segregated interstate buses were illegal because they put an “undue burden” on interstate trade and transportation. In 1950, the court expanded on the Missouri decision when it ruled in Sweatt v. Painter that “separate but equal” professional schools were inherently unequal.
One of the main figures in the NAACP during this period of legal action was its chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall. A brilliant lawyer, Marshall won a major victory in 1950 with the McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents ruling, when he convinced the Supreme Court that segregated cafeterias, libraries, and seats in classrooms placed a “badge of inferiority” on black students. After winning several landmark victories, Marshall himself would go on to become the first black justice on the Supreme Court, in 1967.
The early string of decisive legal victories for civil rights activists laid the foundation for Marshall and the NAACP to launch a head-on attack on the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In 1951, they accepted the case of Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas, who wanted his daughter to be able to attend an all-white elementary school near his house rather than a black school several miles away. The case—Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas—eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court, where Marshall argued that racial segregation relegated black Americans to second-class citizenship. Chief Justice Earl Warren, though appointed by the conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower, sympathized with black Americans and pressured the wavering justices on the bench to vote in Brown’s favor. Warren knew that only a unanimous decision would be powerful enough to quiet racists and truly overturn Plessy v. Ferguson.
After the final two justices had been persuaded to make the groundbreaking, unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, Warren announced that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” A subsequent ruling a year later ordered local school boards to desegregate schools but set no specific timetable for doing so. Unfortunately, the second decision placed federal district judges in charge of supervising the desegregation process, effectively ensuring noncompliance and opposition in the South. Still, Brown v. Board of Education was the landmark legal victory the NAACP had been striving for since its formation nearly a half century earlier. The decision revitalized the Fourteenth Amendment and paved the way for future civil rights legislation.
Many Americans—in both the North and the South—disagreed with the Brown decision and accused Warren of having bent the Constitution in favor of his personal opinions. On the other hand, and despite intense opposition, many Americans defended Warren’s decision by arguing that he had rightly used his authority to make up for Congress’s failure to protect black civil rights.