Challenging Segregation in Public Education


The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, during the congressional Reconstruction era. The amendment’s most significant provision—"No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."—created the potential for two interpretations. It seemed to some that Congress intended for a broad view of civil rights protections and the guarantee of equal rights for all. However, the provision also could be interpreted to guarantee equal protection of political and legal rights but not social rights. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court handed down decisions in a number of cases that would determine the legal meaning of that provision. In each case the court gave a narrow reading of the amendment. Finally, in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court handed down an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that would last for nearly a century. The decision declared that the "equal-protection" clause permitted the separation of races in public facilities as long as the facilities were equal because if "one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."


  • Students will examine primary documents and factual references to analyze the history of the struggle to end segregation in public education.
  • Students will be able to identify the strategy used by the NAACP to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and critical analysis.
  • Students will be able to identify how events in the twentieth century affected the campaign to end segregation and be able to analyze the historical context within which the struggle to end segregation took place.

Lesson Activities

Activity One: Researching the History of Jim Crow/Segregation in the United States

The struggle to end legal segregation took place at a particular time in our history. It is important to fully understand that context.

Divide the class into four groups. Assign each group one of the following topics:

a. Fourteenth Amendment and Plessy v. Ferguson.
b. history of Jim Crow and the overall effects of legal segregation.
c. effects of segregation on public education (K–12 and post-secondary).
d. the NAACP and its role in the struggle to reverse the Plessy decision.

Have each group share its research on the assigned topic with the class.

Ask the students to use their textbooks and the following websites to research their assigned topics.


Activity Two: Analyzing the Legal Arguments

Exercise One

Divide the class into small groups. Each group should research each of the following cases:

  • Gaines v. Canada (Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada)
  • Sweatt v. Painter
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

Exercise Two

Each group will write an opening argument for the NAACP for each of the Supreme Court cases. When preparing the arguments, students should consider:

a. the facts of the cases.
b. the argument that the state would make in each case. (The students will need to anticipate and address as many opposing arguments as possible.)
c. the historical context of the cases.

The following websites provide summaries and some analysis of the cases:

The full text of each case may be found on the Cases page of

Activity Three: Analyzing Public Education after Brown

Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of the following topics for research. Each group should be prepared to explain the context and significance of its topic as it relates to segregation in public education.

1. Brown v. Board of Education II (1955)
2. Little Rock Nine
3. Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Virginia)
4. James E. Swann et al., Petitioners, v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, et al.
5. Keyes, et al. v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado

Have each group share its research on the assigned topic with the class.

The following websites provide primary and secondary resources:

Little Rock Nine


  1. Analyze the strategy used by the NAACP to overturn the separate-but-equal doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson.
  2. To what extent did the 1954 Brown decision achieve the broader goals of ending segregation and achieving integration in public schools in the decades that followed the decision?