By and large, the Supreme Court case that has most significantly impacted race relations in the United States is Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954. Until that case, progress in race relations had crept at an agonizingly slow pace after the end of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction. While African Americans surely gained more rights and a higher status in society than they had been afforded prior to the Civil War, equalization had not yet come into play.
Indeed, many laws and regulations remained on the books and enforced that effectively separated races at all times – a policy referred to as separate but equal. Separating the races did not make for equal standing, however, and one of the areas in which the struggle was most poignant was education. Until the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, black and white children were educated separately – not simply by separate teachers or in separate classrooms, but in entirely different school systems.
As a result of the lack of quality education made available to the African American community, it was nearly impossible for those in the minority to attain the same jobs and advancements as those in the majority. The concept of an integrated school system was morally repugnant to many of those in the majority, however, and so any initiative toward that end was blocked heavily both in local circles and higher legislative bodies. In 1954, that was all to begin changing, leading to a much more diverse and equalized future for all races.
The change for the better was not to come quickly, or easily, but because of the courage shown by the Court in its decision, the process was started. In the State of Kansas, suit was filed against the Topeka Board of Education, alleging that “the city's black and white schools were not equal to each other and never could be”. (McBride, 2006) The contention by the claimants was that the policy of separate but equal, approved by the Court in the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, was actually in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Before reaching the Supreme Court, the Federal District Cout dismissed this claim, stating that while the two school systems may not be specifically equal, they were substantially equal. Upon appeal to the Supreme Court, the cases were consolidated with a number of other cases throughout the country seeking to have school districts desegregated. The Warren Court, lead by a lead nearly as strong as Marshall himself, delivered a unanimous decision in support of Brown and mandating that a policy of separate but equal was in direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
McBride writes that “public education in the 20th century…had become an essential component of a citizen's public life, forming the basis of democratic citizenship, normal socialization, and professional training. In this context, any child denied a good education would be unlikely to succeed in life. ” (McBride, 2006) By laying the groundwork to ensure equal education for all, society as a whole was put on track to improve race relations and provide equal opportunities to all, throughout all aspects of life.