May 17, 1954 marks a defining moment in the history of the United States. On that day, the Supreme Court declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstititutional and handed LDF the most celebrated victory in its storied history.
Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown was ultimately unanimous, it occurred only after a hard-fought, multi-year campaign to persuade all nine justices to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine that their predecessors had endorsed in the Court’s infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. This campaign was conceived in the 1930s by Charles Hamilton Houston, then Dean of Howard Law School, and brilliantly executed in a series of cases over the next two decades by his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall, who became LDF’s first Director-Counsel.
The legal victory in Brown did not transform the country overnight, and much work remains. But striking down segregation in the nation’s public schools provided a major catalyst for the civil rights movement, making possible advances in desegregating housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher education. The decision gave hope to millions of Americans by permanently discrediting the legal rationale underpinning the racial caste system that had been endorsed or accepted by governments at all levels since the end of the nineteenth century. And its impact has been felt by every American.