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Past and Present: How Brown v. BOE Could Have Happened Earlier

J. Stephen Conn / Flickr / Creative Commons

2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education. However, Brown could have been decided one year earlier, if not for some unusual circumstances that brought the lawyers back to the Supreme Court to argue the case… for a second time.

After initial arguments in 1952, the justices met to decide the case and realized that they remained deeply divided. While most of the justices wanted to reverse Plessy v. Ferguson and declare ‘separate but equal’ unconstitutional, they had different reasons for doing so. When the term ended in June 1953, the justices remained unable to reach a consensus and decided to rehear the case in December.

But during the intervening months, unforeseen events changed the Court. In September, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died, leaving a vacancy for President Eisenhower to fill. Eisenhower was in a bind. During his 1952 presidential campaign, he had promised then-governor of California Earl Warren a seat on the Court in exchange for California’s electoral votes. Now, he had to make Warren the Chief.

When Brown was reargued in December 1953, Chief Justice Warren did something his predecessor had been unable to do— bring the justices to a unanimous decision.

While the May 1954 Brown decision marks a turning point in the civil rights movement, it is the unusual circumstances surrounding the reargument of Brown that allowed the Court to state with a single, unanimous voice that, “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.