Stephen Breyer: The day 'equal under law' meant what it says

From a speech by the Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, dedicating a National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fifty years ago the Supreme Court of the United States decided Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Here is the question that case presented: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?" The court answered this question unanimously: "We believe that it does."

Fifty years ago the Supreme Court of the United States decided Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Here is the question that case presented: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?" The court answered this question unanimously: "We believe that it does."

It was a great day - many would say the greatest day - in the history of that institution. Before 17 May 1954, the court read the Constitution's words "equal protection of the laws", as if they protected only the members of the majority race. After 17 May 1954, it read those words as the post-Civil War framers meant them, as offering the same protection to citizens of every race.

Before 17 May 1954, the words "equal justice under law," chiselled in stone above the Supreme Court's door, rang with irony. After 17 May 1954, those words began to mean what they say.

Before 17 May 1954, the court was not a court for all the people. After 17 May 1954, the court began to enforce a law that strives to treat every citizen with equal respect.

Thurgood Marshall, who later became a member of the Supreme Court, represented the schoolchildren in Brown. He argued that separating our children by race violates the Constitution's promise of equal protection. The court agreed, embracing Marshall's argument with a simple affirmation: "We believe that it does."

Comments