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LITIGATION LIBRARY: Fighting Racial Discrimination in the Courts

By Frances Tso | In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a plucky seamstress, got on a bus to go home from her job. She took a seat in the first few rows for “coloured” passengers. When the bus started filling up, the bus driver asked four passengers, including Parks, to give up their seats to white passengers. But she refused.

She was arrested, lost her job and endured death threats for years to come. Rosa’s action publicly challenged the idea of “separate but equal” was merely lip service. Sadly, the reality was that people were denied opportunities and the right to public facilities because of their race.


Despite using peaceful protest and strategies to rally for change like those used that day by Rosa Parks, African-American communities were met with violent resistance by white mobs and police. But the violent resistance to equality by racist mobs planted the seeds that would eventually sprout into a momentous civil rights movement, including through the courts. Through a series of high profile court cases activists found the courts possessed the unique power to shine a light on oppression and force the public to reckon with facts forming an important tool in their toolbox to effect social change.


Brown v. Board of Education


In the 1950s, Kansas was among the many states where schools were segregated by race. Every day, Linda Brown and her sister had to walk six blocks and cross dangerous railroad tracks to get to the bus stop for their ride to their segregated elementary school. There was a school much closer to her house, but it was only open to white students. 


Linda and her family believed that segregation within schools was unfair and violated the 14th Amendment which grants all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law. The Brown v Board of Education case was designed to tackle this very thing. Linda’s case was groundbreaking and not only prompted conversations about the unconstitutionality of racial segregation, but highlighted the value of strategic litigation.


Linda’s case, Brown v Board of Education was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in America. It is this building that would tip the scales of justice and decide the outcome of the movement that had demanded racial equality for decades. 


Defenders of segregation drew upon the argument that it was not harmful, and that white people were making a good effort to equalise the two systems. They argued because African American children were still living with the effects of slavery, it would take some time before they were able to compete with white children in the same classroom. They held that even though they were separate, it was still equal as they had similar teachers, facilities and resources. 


However, this was not the case. The country essentially had two different systems of public education. Schools for African American children often lacked basic necessities. In South Carolina, African American children attended schools without running water, flushing toilets, or electricity. In one county, $149 was spent per year on each white student, but only $43 on each African American student. 


In addition to the funding and quality of buildings and school materials, the civil rights lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund drew upon psychological research, and argued that segregation was damaging Black children’s self-esteem, contributed towards stigmatisation and adversely shaped their self-image for the rest of their lives. Separate schools was a form of institutionalised racism which made it plain to African American children that they were deemed unworthy of education in the same classrooms as white children. School segregation reinforced notions of difference and inequality associated with race, prejudice and racism. Equal protection of the laws did not allow for racial segregation.


Overall, the court famously held that segregating public schools was unconstitutional and inherently unequal. In a unanimous decision, they concluded that “separate but equal” has no place in the United States. 


Perhaps no other case has bore such a profound impact on the social fabric of America and the subsequent treatment of African Americans as Brown v Board of Education. By overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine, the case set the legal precedent that would be used to overturn laws enforcing segregation in other public facilities. Perhaps more significantly, the ramifications of such an outcome were felt across the world.


So much has been done to advance the rights of people of colour. But there is still much more to be done. The core mission of Brown v Board of Education is unfinished. Despite the illusion of freedom and equal opportunities, racial discrimination in the 21st century remains a key issue. In many ways, people are still restricted from equal opportunity. But together, we can hold the powerful to account, whether it is through standing up to government power, integrated litigation or movement campaigns. It is up to us – you and me – to be the change we want to see and pave the way for future generations to come.

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