This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of the nation's schools. While the ruling did not, of course, prove to be a panacea for the problem of uneven educational opportunities for Americans of different races, at the time it passed it was widely hailed as a triumph for the cause of equality. Indeed, to many it signified that African-Americans no longer needed to settle for separate, second-class status in American society.
Two Atlantic Monthly articles written close to the time of the ruling indicate the level of optimism with which the ruling was greeted both by African-Americans and champions of their cause. In "Segregation and the Supreme Court," an article that appeared just two months after the May 17, 1954, decision, the Harvard Law School professor Arthur E. Sutherland argued that in some sense the ruling should not come as a great surprise, because the tide of public opinion had been gradually turning in favor of racial equality and integration for a long while, and thus "a change for the better has been long coming."
Sutherland explained that in order to rule against the practice of school segregation the justices had needed to be able to make a case that separate schools for black children violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, according to which all citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law. Indeed, the Court had concluded that (as Sutherland wrote, paraphrasing the opinion written by Chief Justice Warren), "[Segregation] generates a feeling of inferiority as to [African-Americans'] status in the community; it may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."