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AP WAS THERE: Original 1954 Brown v. Board story

Saturday - 5/17/2014, 7:52am  ET

HERB ALTSCHULL
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- EDITOR'S NOTE: On May 17, 1954, a hushed crowd of spectators packed the Supreme Court, awaiting word on Brown v. Board of Education, a combination of five lawsuits brought by the NAACP's legal arm to challenge racial segregation in public schools. The high court decided unanimously that "separate but equal" education denied black children their constitutional right to equal protection under the law, effectively removing a cornerstone that propped up Jim Crow, or state-sanctioned segregation of the races.

AP reporter Herb Altschull chronicled the court's decision and what it meant for segregation, which in 1954 permeated many aspects of American life. Using the style and language of journalists of his era, including a reference to Asians as "Orientals," Altschull captured the uncertainty hanging over a society on the brink of seismic change. He noted that Dean Acheson, former secretary of state, and Herbert Brownell, the current attorney general, were in the courtroom. He reported the immediate, steely resistance of Gov. Herman Talmadge and Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, where opposition to integration was strong. He described how Chief Justice Earl Warren departed from procedure and read the decision before distributing copies, and he quoted an optimistic Thurgood Marshall, the "Negro attorney from New York" who argued part of the case, as saying he believed Southerners would honor the Brown decision.

More importantly, Altschull explained that segregation wouldn't disappear overnight, and "a lengthy delay" in implementing Brown was likely -- a statement that proved prescient.

Additional action by the Supreme Court was required before integration finally took hold in U.S. classrooms, and vestiges of segregation linger to this day. Among the justices who heard those cases was Marshall, who was head of the NAACP's legal operation at the time of the Brown decision and went on to become the Supreme Court's first black justice in 1967.

Sixty years after its initial publication, The AP is making Altschull's compelling report available to its subscribers.

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The Supreme Court ruled today that the states of the nation do not have the right to separate Negro and white pupils in different public schools.

By a unanimous 9-0 vote, the high court held that such segregation of the races is unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Warren read the historic decision to a packed but hushed gallery of spectators nearly two years after Negro residents of four states and the District of Columbia went before the court to challenge the principle of segregation.

The ruling does not end segregation at once. Further hearings were set for this fall to decide how and when to end the practice of segregation. Thus a lengthy delay is likely before the decision is carried out.

Dean Acheson, secretary of state under former President Harry Truman, was in the courtroom to hear the ruling. He called it "great and statesmanlike."

Atty. Gen. Brownell was also present. He declined comment immediately. Brownell and the Eisenhower administration, like Truman's, opposed segregation.

For years 17 southern and "border" states have imposed compulsory segregation on approximately two-thirds of the nation's Negroes. Officials of some states already are on record as saying they will close the schools rather than permit them to be operated with Negro and white pupils in the same classrooms.

In its decision, the high court struck down the long-standing "separate but equal" doctrine first laid down by the Supreme Court in 1896 when it maintained that segregation was all right if equal facilities were made available for Negroes and whites.

Here is the heart of today's decision as it deals with this hotly controverted doctrine:

"We come then to the question presented: 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 education opportunities?"

"We believe that it does."

James C. Hagerty, presidential press secretary, told a news conference the White House would have no comment at this time. He noted that Warren's opinion said formulation of specific decrees must await later hearings.

Gov. Herman Talmadge, one of the most outspoken supporters of segregation, hit back from Atlanta that the court's decision had reduced the constitution to "a mere scrap of paper."

"It has blatantly ignored all law and precedent and usurped from the Congress and the people the power to amend the Constitution and from the Congress the authority to make the laws of the land," Talmadge said.

Thurgood Marshall, Negro attorney from New York who had argued the case against segregation last December, said he was highly pleased that the decision was unanimous and that the language used was unequivocal.

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