Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

IRAC Summary

Issue: The central issue in Brown v. Board of Education was whether the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, which permitted state-sponsored segregation in public education, was constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule: The Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits states from denying any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Application: The Court examined whether segregation by race in public schools, even if the segregated schools are of equal quality, deprives minority children of equal educational opportunities. The Court considered psychological studies, such as the “doll test” by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, which suggested that segregation had a detrimental effect on the education and personal growth of African American children.

Conclusion: The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and therefore, the segregation of public schools based on race was unconstitutional. The Court held that “separate but equal” doctrine, as it applies to public education, was incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Detailed IRAC Outline

Issue: More specifically, the delineation of the issue in Brown v. Board of Education is whether state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students deny black children equal educational opportunities, thereby violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule: The relevant law is the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which commands that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This clause was interpreted in light of precedent, particularly Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed for “separate but equal” facilities according to race.


  • Facts: The facts of the case involved several black children who had been denied admission to certain public schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to race. The plaintiffs contended that segregated public schools were not “equal” and could not be made “equal,” and that they were thus deprived of the equal protection of the laws.

  • Lower Court Decisions: Prior to reaching the Supreme Court, the cases had been heard in different jurisdictions, with varying outcomes. Some courts followed the “separate but equal” standard and found for the school boards, while others had found this standard to be harmful to black children.

  • Supreme Court’s Evaluation: The Supreme Court considered historical context, legislative history, and the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment at the time of its adoption. They also considered the effects of segregation on public education. Psychological evidence was introduced to show the detrimental effects on black children, contributing to a sense of inferiority that affected their motivation to learn.

  • Precedent Analysis: The Court analyzed the application of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and acknowledged that the “separate but equal” doctrine had been used to justify segregation in public education through a literal equalization of tangible factors such as buildings and curricula. However, the Court recognized that intangible factors must be considered in determining whether racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal.


  • Holding and Rationale: The Supreme Court held that in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place, as segregated schools are inherently unequal. The Court reasoned that education must be available to all on equal terms and that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect on minority children because it is interpreted as a sign of inferiority.

  • Remedy: The Court ordered that the plaintiffs be admitted to public schools on a nonsegregated basis, and directed that the cases be returned to the lower courts to oversee and ensure that the desegregation process be carried out with “all deliberate speed.”

  • Impact: Brown v. Board of Education overruled Plessy v. Ferguson insofar as it applied to public education, helped dismantle segregation across the South, and served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. It established the principle that state-mandated segregation of public education based on race violates the Equal Protection Clause.

The case of Brown v. Board of Education is foundational in constitutional law, signaling a turning point in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and serving as a landmark case in the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

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