For much of the 90 years preceding 1954, race relations in the United States had been dominated by segregation, a system of racial separation which, while in name providing for separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, in truth perpetuated inferior accommodation, services, and treatment for black Americans.
Brown is undoubtedly the most famous of a group of U.S. Supreme Court cases which principally deal with the struggle of black Americans to recover the rights of citizenship expressly given to them by the Constitution of the United States. The group also includes Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)*, Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940)*, Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944)*, Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)*, Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)*, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)*, NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958)*, Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960)* and Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964)*.
In 1951, a suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on behalf of Linda Brown, a third grader from Topeka, Kansas who was forced to walk a mile to her segregated black school, while a white school was only seven blocks from her house. Brown's suit had the backing of the NAACP, whose chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall--himself appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967--argued the case. The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)*, which allowed state laws requiring "separate but equal" facilities in railway cars for blacks and whites.
The case of Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the Supreme Court combined four cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), and Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware). All were NAACP-sponsored cases.
The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On 17 May 1954 the Warren Court handed down a unanimous 9-0 decision which stated, in no uncertain terms, that "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The 17 May 1954 decision reversed the Court's previous decision in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, (1899)*, which had specifically validated the segregation of public schools. Brown did not, however, result in the immediate desegregation of America's public schools, nor did it mandate desegregation of other public facilities, such as restaurants or bathrooms, which would not be accomplished until the formal overturning of Plessy by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it was a giant step forwards for the US civil rights movement, placing the weight of the Federal Judiciary squarely behind the forces of desegregation.