WASHINGTON, May 17, 1954 (UP) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday in an historic decision that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Speaking for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Earl Warren said education must be available to all on an equal basis.
The decision, a sweeping victory for Negroes, is probably the most important in U.S. race relations since the famous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that a Negro was not a citizen. The Civil War reversed that decision.
Warren said because of the wide ramifications of the decision, formulation of specific decrees will be delayed until further arguments have been heard.
But the court by Warren's opinion Monday laid down the rule that segregation is "a denial of equal protection of the laws" to Negroes.
This is the phraseology of the 14th amendment to the Constitution, on which the Negroes relied in bringing their cases.
Monday's decision was taken in four cases brought originally in four states - South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Kansas.
Some 9,000,000 white and 2,650,000 Negro children attend separate schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming also have segregation in some localities.
The momentous ruling invalidates many provisions in state constitutions, laws and administrative regulations in the 17 states which now require segregation.
The 12-page ruling - a document that will rank in sociological significance with Lincoln's emancipation proclamation - swept aside the "separate but equal doctrine" laid down by the Supreme Court in 1896.
Under that doctrine, the tribunal has held in the past that Negroes must be given educational facilities equal to those afforded white students but that the facilities could be separate.
The court's decision not to issue the specific decrees at this time was apparently in recognition of the complexity of the issue and the physical difficulties involved in putting the ruling into effect.
Warren said further arguments will be heard, presumably in the fall, before the decrees are formulated.
Warren said that historical data proved "inconclusive" as to the intent of the framers of the 14th amendment. Warren said, however, that "in approaching this problem, we cannot turn back the clock to 1868 when the amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy vs. Ferguson was written. (Plessy vs. Ferguson was the case that established the "separate but equal doctrine" which Negroes have been fighting for 30 years to set aside.)
"We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these (complainants) of the equal protection of the laws."
"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government ...
"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.
"Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
Warren then took up the question whether segregation of children in separate buildings, solely on the basis of race even though physical facilities are equal, deprives colored children of equal educational opportunities.
"We believe that it does," he said.
Warren recalled twin decisions of the court in 1950 which required admission of Negro students on an unsegregated basis to state-supported graduate schools in universities in Texas and Oklahoma.
He noted that in the Texas case the court found that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them with equal educational opportunities because of certain qualities that can't be measured but which make for greatness in a law school.
In the Oklahoma University case the court held that a Negro admitted to a White school must be treated like all other students because of these same intangible considerations - "His ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession."
"Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools," Warren said.
"To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
Warren said the effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well-stated by the federal court in Kansas, which nevertheless ruled against the Negroes because of the time honored "separate but equal" doctrine.
The finding of the Kansas court that segregation has "a detrimental effect upon the colored children" is "amply supported by modern authorities," Warren said, whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of the Plessy vs. Ferguson case in 1896.
The opinion flatly reversed all language about education in the Plessy case that is contrary to Monday's ruling.