“Separate but equal” may have seemed unconscionable to many, but it was the law in many states. In the 1950s 17 states and the District of Columbia had laws prohibiting school desegregation. It was clear to most educators, parents, and children that there could be no such thing as a separate but equal education. Several cases appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of segregated schools, and the Court’s unanimous ruling on Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 1954 turned the doctrine of school segregation on its head. “Separate educational facilities,” said the Court, “are inherently unequal.”
Although the Brown decision marked the beginning of the end for sanctioned segregation in the schools, segregation’s end did not come immediately. In fact, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, several Southern governors, notably Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Ross Barnett of Mississippi, and George Wallace of Alabama, vigorously defended segregation. Not until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was desegregation dealt a definitive blow throughout the United States.