May 17 2011

On This Day In History May 17

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

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May 17 is the 137th day of the year (138th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 228 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1954, in a major civil rights victory, the U.S. Supreme Court hands down an unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that racial segregation in public educational facilities is unconstitutional. The historic decision, which brought an end to federal tolerance of racial segregation, specifically dealt with Linda Brown, a young African American girl who had been denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of the color of her skin.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state-sponsored segregation. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court’s unanimous (9-0) decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.

Supreme Court Review

The case of Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the Supreme Court combined five cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.).

All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Davis case, the only case of the five originating from a student protest, began when sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns organized and led a 450-student walkout of Moton High School.

The Kansas case was unique among the group in that there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools’ physical plant, curriculum, or staff. The district court found substantial equality as to all such factors. The Delaware case was unique in that the District Court judge in Gebhart ordered that the black students be admitted to the white high school due to the substantial harm of segregation and the differences that made the schools separate but not equal. The NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, argued the case before the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs. Assistant attorney general Paul Wilson, later distinguished emeritus professor of law at the University of Kansas, conducted the state’s ambivalent defense in his first appellate trial.

Unanimous Opinion and Key Holding

In spring 1953 the Court heard the case but was unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953, with special attention to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks.

The case was being reargued at the behest of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who used re-argument as a stalling tactic, to allow the Court to gather a unanimous consensus around a Brown opinion that would outlaw segregation. Chief Justice Vinson had been a key stumbling block. The justices in support of desegregation spent much effort convincing those who initially dissented to join a unanimous opinion. Even though the legal effect would be same for a majority versus unanimous decision, it was felt that it was vital to not have a dissent which could be relied upon by opponents of desegregation as a legitimizing counterargument.

Conference notes and draft decisions illustrate the division of opinions before the decision was issued. Justices Douglas, Black, Burton, and Minton were predisposed to overturn Plessy. Fred M. Vinson noted that Congress had not issued desegregation legislation; Stanley F. Reed discussed incomplete cultural assimilation and states’ rights and was inclined to the view that segregation worked to the benefit of the African-American community; Tom C. Clark wrote that “we had led the states on to think segregation is OK and we should let them work it out.” Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson disapproved of segregation, but were also opposed to judicial activism and expressed concerns about the proposed decision’s enforceability. After Vinson died in September 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Warren had supported the integration of Mexican-American students in California school systems following Mendez v. Westminster.

While all but one justice personally rejected segregation, the self-restraint faction questioned whether the Constitution gave the Court the power to order its end. The activist faction believed the Fourteenth Amendment did give the necessary authority and were pushing to go ahead. Warren, who held only a recess appointment, held his tongue until the Senate, dominated by southerners, confirmed his appointment.

Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of Negroes. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive Southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion.

Although most justices were immediately convinced, Warren spent some time after this famous speech convincing everyone to sign onto the opinion. Justices Robert Jackson and Stanley Reed finally decided to drop their dissent to what was by then an opinion backed by all the others. The final decision was unanimous. Warren drafted the basic opinion and kept circulating and revising it until he had an opinion endorsed by all the members of the Court.


The key holding of the Court was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was harmful to black students and unconstitutional. They found that a significant psychological and social disadvantage was given to black children from the nature of segregation itself, drawing on research conducted by Kenneth Clark assisted by June Shagaloff. This aspect was vital because the question was not whether the schools were “equal”, which under Plessy they nominally should have been, but whether the doctrine of separate was constitutional. The justices answered with a strong “no”:

   Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does… Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

 1521 – Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, is executed for treason.

1536 – George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford and four other men are executed for treason.

1590 – Anne of Denmark is crowned Queen of Scotland.

1642 – Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve (1612-1676) founds the Ville Marie de MontrĂ©al.

1673 – Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette begin exploring the Mississippi River.

1775 – American Revolutionary War: the Continental Congress bans trade with Canada.

1792 – The New York Stock Exchange is formed.

1805 – Muhammad Ali becomes Wali of Egypt.

1809 – Napoleon I of France orders the annexation of the Papal States to the French Empire.

1814 – Occupation of Monaco changes from French to Austrian.

1814 – The Constitution of Norway is signed and the Danish Crown Prince Christian Frederik is elected King of Norway by the Norwegian Constituent Assembly.

1849 – A large fire nearly burns St. Louis, Missouri to the ground.

1865 – The International Telegraph Union (later the International Telecommunication Union) is established in Paris.

1875 – Aristides wins the first Kentucky Derby.

1900 – Second Boer War: British troops relieve Mafeking.

1902 – Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais discovers the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient mechanical analog computer.

1915 – The last British Liberal Party government (led by Herbert Henry Asquith) falls.

1919 – The British War Department orders use of National Star Insignia on all airplanes.

1933 – Vidkun Quisling and Johan Bernhard Hjort form Nasjonal Samling – the national-socialist party of Norway.

1939 – The Columbia Lions and the Princeton Tigers play in the United States’ first televised sporting event, a collegiate baseball game in New York City.

1940 – World War II: Germany occupies Brussels, Belgium.

1940 – World War II: the old city centre of the Dutch town of Middelburg is bombed by the German Luftwaffe, to force the surrender of the Dutch armies in Zeeland.

1943 – The United States Army contracts with the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School to develop the ENIAC.

1943 – World War II: the Dambuster Raids by No. 617 Squadron RAF on German dams.

1954 – The United States Supreme Court hands down a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

1967 – Six-Day War: President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt demands dismantling of the peace-keeping UN Emergency Force in Egypt.

1969 – Venera program: Soviet Venera 6 begins its descent into the atmosphere of Venus, sending back atmospheric data before being crushed by pressure.

1970 – Thor Heyerdahl sets sail from Morocco on the papyrus boat Ra II to sail the Atlantic Ocean.

1973 – Watergate scandal: Televised hearings begin in the United States Senate.

1974 – Police in Los Angeles, California, raid the Symbionese Liberation Army’s headquarters, killing six members, including Camilla Hall.

1974 – Dublin and Monaghan bombings: Thirty-three civilians are killed when the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) explodes car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan, Republic of Ireland.

1980 – General Chun Doo-hwan of South Korea seizes control of the government and declares martial law in order to suppress student demonstrations.

1980 – On the eve of presidential elections, Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path attacks a polling location in the town of Chuschi, Ayacucho, starting the Internal conflict in Peru.

1983 – The U.S. Department of Energy declassifies documents showing world’s largest mercury pollution event in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (ultimately found to be 4.2 million pounds), in response to the Appalachian Observer’s Freedom of Information Act request.

1983 – Lebanon, Israel, and the United States sign an agreement on Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

1984 – Prince Charles calls a proposed addition to the National Gallery, London, a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend,” sparking controversies on the proper role of the Royal Family and the course of modern architecture.

1987 – An Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1 fighter jet fires two missiles into the U.S. Navy warship USS Stark, killing 37 and injuring 21 of her crew.

1990 – The General Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) eliminates homosexuality from the list of psychiatric diseases.

1992 – Three days of popular protests against the government of Prime Minister of Thailand Suchinda Kraprayoon begin in Bangkok, leading to a military crackdown that results in 52 officially confirmed deaths, many disappearances, hundreds of injuries, and over 3,500 arrests.

1994 – Malawi holds its first multi-party elections.

1997 – Troops of Laurent Kabila march into Kinshasa. Zaire is officially renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo.

2004 – Massachusetts becomes the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage.

2006 – The aircraft carrier USS Oriskany is sunk in the Gulf of Mexico as an artificial reef.

2007 – Trains from North and South Korea cross the 38th Parallel in a test-run agreed by both governments. This is the first time that trains have crossed the Demilitarized Zone since 1953.

2009 – Dalia Grybauskaite is elected the first female President of Lithuania.

Holidays and observances

   * Birthday of the Raja (Perlis)

   * Christian Feast Day:

       Paschal Baylon


       May 17 (Eastern Orthodox liturgics)

   * Constitution Day (Nauru)

   * Constitution Day (Norway)

   * Earliest date on which Trinity Sunday can fall, while June 20 is the latest; celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. (Western Christianity)

   * Galician Literature Day or Dia das Letras Galegas (Galicia)

   * International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia aka IDAHO

   * Liberation Day (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

   * National Famine Memorial Day (Ireland)

   * Navy Day (Argentina)

   * World Information Society Day (International)

1 comment

  1. TMC

    DAlai Lama

    Reliable and genuine discipline comes not from repression, but from an understanding of all the whys and wherefores of our actions.

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