Listen: <b>Web Extra:</b> Justice Marshall, Speaking in 1978 at Howard University Law School about Segregation and Civil Rights
From left, attorneys George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit Jr. celebrate their victory in the Brown case on May 17, 1954.
John Davis, left, and Thurgood Marshall opposed each other before the Supreme Court in the Brown case. They are seen in a December 1952 photo.
Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams.
Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court heard final arguments in the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education. The following May, the court ruled that separate schools for black and white children were unconstitutional. On Morning Edition, NPR's Juan Williams traces the story of Thurgood Marshall, who led the fight to dismantle the "separate but equal" doctrine in public education and later went on to become the first African American on the Supreme Court.
Marshall had seen segregation his entire life. His mother taught kindergarten in all-black schools, where she earned far less by law than white teachers. After college, Marshall wanted to attend law school at the University of Maryland but the school did not accept blacks. Two years after graduating from the law school at historically black Howard University, Marshall, with help from Howard Law School dean and mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, won a lawsuit forcing the University of Maryland to integrate its law school.
Houston had brought Marshall into the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and their work set the stage for what was to become the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., case. In addition to Topeka, Brown was accompanied by similar cases from around the country: South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.
When the case went to the Supreme Court, Marshall argued that school segregation was a violation of individual rights under the 14th Amendment. He also asserted that the only justification for continuing to have separate schools was to keep people who were slaves "as near that stage as possible."
On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren, delivered the unanimous ruling: "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Williams' story is among the first of a series of NPR reports leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Brown ruling. Next, on All Things Considered, NPR's Nina Totenberg has a three-part report examining how the Supreme Court reached its decision.