Education litigation is a legal process that can affect school policies. When a lawsuit reaches the United States (US) Supreme Court, the highest court in the US, the court’s decisions can have an impact on schools nationwide. Educational law, like other types of law, has evolved over the decades. An example of this is the history of Supreme Court rulings on segregation in schools.
In 1896, the Supreme Court considered Plessy v. Ferguson, a lawsuit that challenged a separate but equal law in Louisiana regarding segregating blacks and whites — the Louisiana Separate Car Act. The lawsuit centered on whether it was constitutional for Louisiana to force blacks into separate cars on a railroad that operated solely in that state. When the Supreme Court ruled that the act was constitutional, the decision had far reaching effects. States used the decision to justify separate but equal practices in other institutions, including schools.
The next case that affected education access which reached the Supreme Court was Cumming v. the Richmond Board of Education in 1899. This was the first separate but equal education litigation brought before the high court. In its decision, the court ruled that it was constitutional for a school board to close a public school for blacks for financial reasons while continuing to operate two public schools for white children. The court found that the school board’s decision was not based on discrimination.
Kentucky prohibited interracial instruction within its borders in 1904. Berea College was the only college that offered interracial education within the state. In 1908, the Supreme Court ruled in Berea College v. the Commonwealth of Kentucky, that Kentucky’s law was constitutional because the school was chartered under state law.
Lloyd Gaines, an African American, wanted to go to law school. There were no black schools in Missouri — Gaines's home state — that offered law degrees, so Gaines applied to the University of Missouri and was rejected. Missouri law at the time held that blacks in this type of situation were to be given tuition to attend appropriate schools in nearby states. After Gaines refused the offer of tuition, the case ultimately landed at the Supreme Court. In 1938, the court ruled in Missouri ex Rel Gaines v. Canada that since Missouri offered law degrees to whites, the state had to offer similar education to blacks.
Beginning in the late 1940s, blacks and their supporters started filing more education litigation to test separate but equal laws. In 1948, the Supreme Court heard Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma and ruled that schools could not reject students simply because of race. The court found in Sweatt v. Painter that Texas was not providing "separate but equal" educational opportunities to whites and blacks. Again in 1950, the court ruled that Oklahoma University could not segregate a black student from white students by requiring the black student to sit in special areas in classrooms, the cafeteria, and the library. Several other cases that were to be heard by the Court during this time were rolled into what would become Brown v. the Board of Education.
Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas was a combination of five cases that all addressed separate but equal and segregation laws involving schools. As a result of this education litigation, the Supreme Court in 1954 ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. The court followed up in 1955 with Brown II, encouraging states to begin desegregating schools "with all deliberate speed."