Connecting the ‘Brown’ Decision to Today’s Social Justice Movement

Teach the Supreme Court’s decision in 'Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka' in all its complexity and relevance to the ongoing movement for inclusive education.

Children are impeded from developing the essential skills to engage in dialogue across differences and to problem-solve together when they attend schools that continue to be divided along racial, ethnic and economic lines. Their ability to navigate a complicated world is limited when they can’t learn from one another’s differences and gain a deep understanding of diversity, both in curricula and in learning spaces.

Therefore, inclusive education—which continues the Civil Rights Movement’s fight for equity and justice in education—promotes representation not only in the student body and integration of schools, but in more multicultural and inclusive curricula. “Our classrooms must be a place that celebrates diversity in thought, perspective, lived experiences,” Rebecca Latin, JEDI director at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), explains. “Nothing valued and thought-provoking can be learned in an environment where everyone thinks the same and has the same background. We do our communities and our children a disservice when we do not take advantage of every opportunity to expose them to the truth—the truth about history and the fact that we do not live in a monolithic society.”

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s combined legal, legislative and activist strategies in challenging racial segregation in the struggle for civil rights. As a major victory of the movement, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, is too often simplified as marking the end of segregated schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s clear summary of the Court’s opinion might support the impression of a simple historical change narrative: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” But the Court’s decision didn’t automatically end the practices of a system deeply rooted in white supremacy.

In addition, the simple version of the Brown narrative can be appealing in its focus on the positives, as summarized in a Teaching Tolerance magazine 2004 article: “It is the story of two little girls walking through a railroad switchyard in 1950s Topeka, Kansas, lunch bags in hand, unable to attend a nearby white school, making their way to the Black bus stop beyond the tracks. And it is the larger story of countless other African American children walking great distances, against great odds, to reach their own segregated schools as buses filled with white children passed them by. But it is, at its heart, a story of togetherness, of courageously good-hearted and open-minded Black and white people—and others—working together toward a constitutional ideal.” This is the narrative often taught in schools, a story that, while inspirational, does not address the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of the Brown decision, the opposition to desegregation, and the ongoing movement and intense pushback to equality that we face today. 

Therefore, in teaching about the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and the struggle to end legal racial segregation, we must resist telling the simple story. We need to also address the current justice challenges in education, including current political attempts to censor Black history, erase LGBTQ+ representation and limit information that supports diversity and equity in curricula and in public spaces. The current stream of censorship laws and deliberate distortions of history exemplify the urgency of avoiding simple narratives and popular rhetoric if we are to increase the understanding of our past and present to build a more just future.

“My sincere hope,” Latin shares, “is that we do not continue to roll back 70 years of work our elders have done to ensure Black and Brown children feel affirmed in their learning environments.”

Toolkit: Teaching About Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Cover of "Teaching the Civil Rights Movement."

The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, provides an opportunity to teach young people about the complexities of a historical event as part of a larger movement and to make connections to today’s society. 

The following resources for teaching about the Brown case are excerpted and adapted from LFJ’s curriculum framework Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, which provides strategies, essential knowledge and historical context for teaching about Black Americans’ civic activism and the movement for equality and civil rights.

The Summary Objectives and Essential Knowledge outline the concepts, analytical skills and historical information students should know, and the resources provide options for teaching each Essential Knowledge. 

Summary Objectives 

  • Evaluate the ways that a combination of legal, legislative and activist strategies in the late 1940s and 1950s for achieving political and social equality advanced the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. [Summary Objective 4]
  • Analyze the hostile opposition to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the tactics that white supremacists across the country used—from cultural campaigns to legal strategies to terrorist attacks—to try to slow or prevent its work. [Summary Objective 5]
  • Analyze some key legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and recognize that, even after the courts and Congress enacted new civil rights and voting protections during this period, racial discrimination continued and African Americans across the country still lacked access to quality education, well-paid jobs, health care and decent housing. [Summary Objective 7]
  • Analyze how the Civil Rights Movement continues to shape policy, law and culture through the late 20th and early 21st centuries—and recognize the movement’s unfinished business. [Summary Objective 13]

Essential Knowledge

  • The legal strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) culminated in a series of Supreme Court rulings that expanded rights for African Americans across the country, including rulings desegregating buses and successful challenges to laws that segregated schools and restricted voting. [4C]
  • The most famous legal victory of this era was the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools, striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson. [4D]
  • School segregation remains a significant problem today, and the legal strategy developed by the NAACP in the 1940s and 1950s is still being used to fight for well-funded, integrated schools in District Courts across the United States. [4E]
  • There was substantial organized opposition to racial equality from white elected officials at federal, state and local levels. Many candidates ran successfully on segregationist and overtly racist platforms. [5E]
  • The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education provided a key victory of the movement in outlawing de jure school segregation. But it did not result in widespread, immediate school integration. Many white families withdrew their children from integrating schools, and persistent housing segregation meant many neighborhood schools remained segregated. [7B]
  • Along with judicial successes like the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the hard-won legislative victories of the 1960s democratized many American institutions. The strategies and achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s expanded the electorate, reduced organized racial terror by vigilante groups, created new social and cultural organizations and institutions to combat white supremacy, and addressed other forms of discrimination. [13A]
  • However, despite these achievements, racism and white supremacy persist in the United States. Housing segregation continues, and schools are more segregated now than they’ve been since the 1970s. Structural racism continues to manifest in systems and institutions in many ways. [13B]


The following resources offer options for teaching this history in all its complexity and making connections to the present.

  • To examine the planning for the Brown case, review the National Archives resource Timeline of Events Leading to the Brown v. Board of Education Decision of 1954. Students can also review the Virginia Museum of History & Culture page  which summarizes the five court cases the NAACP filed around the country as part of their legal strategy against segregation that were all combined by the court in Brown. [4C]
  • To better contextualize the importance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown, students can examine primary sources such as “Separate Is Not Equal,” which includes photographs of segregated classrooms for students to compare. The National Archives’ Brown v. Board of Education page includes primary sources, teaching activities and background information to contextualize the ruling. [4D]
  • When teaching the complicated history of school integration, educators should be sure to address the resistance and resilience of Black educators facing racist systems of resource allocation and discuss the ways that integration negatively affected many Black teachers. “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” an episode of the Revisionist History podcast, is a good starting place for learning more. [4D]
  • Newly integrated schools did not provide welcoming spaces to African American students. To learn from those who lived through integration—and those who integrated schools— read a passage from the bell hooks memoir Bone Black, available in the LFJ text library. [4D]
  • Students can also review some of the oral histories collected by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative in Somebody Had To Do It: First Children in School Desegregation. Time magazine’s 2017 article “‘I Had a Right To Be at Central’: Remembering Little Rock’s Integration Battle” includes a video and reflections from Carlotta Walls, who at 14 was one of the first students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. [4D]
  • Students should know that Latine/x families also had to fight for desegregation in schools. They can review the District Court ruling in the 1946 case Mendez v. Westminster, available in the LFJ text library, or read about the case in the LFJ article “Why Mendez Still Matters.” For more ideas on teaching Mendez, educators should refer to the accompanying “Toolkit.” Finally, students can listen to a recording—or read the transcript—of “StoryCorps: Fighting To Stay in School,” a conversation about the case between Sylvia Mendez and her sister Sandra Mendez Duran. [4D]
  • For an overview of segregation across the U.S. today—as well as an explanation of how later Supreme Court rulings made further support for integration less likely—students can read the New York Times opinion piece Linda Brown and the Unfinished Work of School Integration,” published shortly after Brown died in 2018. [4E]
  • For more on contemporary segregation, read and discuss the graphs in the Conversation article “What School Segregation Looks Like in the US Today, in 4 Charts.” [4E]
  • To learn more about the ongoing legal work of the NAACP, particularly around education, visit the Legal Defense Fund’s Education webpage and explore “case spotlights.” [4E]
  • To understand the scale and many forms of opposition to integration, students can read some or all of the “Massive Resistance” section of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Segregation in America report. The Legal Defense Fund’s article “The Southern Manifesto and ‘Massive Resistance’ to Brown offers a briefer introduction. [5E]
  • Students can examine documents about the integration of Little Rock schools to better understand the tension between the federal government and the state government on desegregation. For example, they should know that President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730 to assist the Little Rock Nine in attending school. They can compare this order to the September 1958 “Orval Faubus speech,” in which the Arkansas governor explained his preference to shut down high schools rather than integrate. Studying these documents can help students understand the power white elected officials at the state level held when opposing civil rights. [5E]
  • To understand the limits of Brown v. Board of Education, review some of the many ways Black people had to keep working to dismantle segregation at local, state and national levels. Students can read the 1958 Washington Observer story “Segregation’s Citadel Unbreached in 4 Years” to get a sense of the ways Southern communities resisted desegregation. [5E]
  • In 1974, the Supreme Court majority struck down a federal decision to help desegregate schools in Michigan. Students can read Justice William O. Douglas’ dissenting opinion in Milliken v. Bradley to better understand the role of the government in creating and maintaining segregated school districts long after Brown. [7B]
  • For teaching about education inequality beyond the South, review the Rethinking Schools article “The Largest Civil Rights Protest You’ve Never Heard Of,” which introduces the 1964 New York City school boycott—in which nearly half of the city’s K-12 students stayed home to protest the absence of quality, integrated schools for all. The article also recommends strategies for teaching the boycott and links to lesson plans. [7B]
  • For an overview of the positive impacts of the movement, paired with a recognition of the significant work still ahead, students can read “President Obama’s Address on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday.” A transcript and video of the speech, along with text-based questions, are available in the LFJ student text library. [13A]
  • Students can analyze the continuing and expanding impact of the movement’s legislative victories by considering the 2020 Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County. That ruling made it illegal in the United States to refuse or terminate employment on the basis of gender or sexual identity. In Bostock, the court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a key legislative achievement of the Black freedom struggle—offered protection against workplace discrimination that targets gay and transgender people. For an accessible introduction to this ruling, educators can see the Vox article “The Supreme Court’s Landmark LGBTQ Rights Decision, Explained in 5 Simple Sentences.” [13A]
  • For a personal reflection on the impact of the movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, students can read the 2008 LFJ article by U.S. Rep. John Lewis “Reflections on a Dream Deferred.” [13A]
  • To understand the weaknesses of school desegregation efforts, students can learn about the 1986 reopening of Brown v. Board of Education. In that case, 32 years after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of desegregation, plaintiffs including Linda Brown (by then Linda Brown Smith) sued the Topeka Board of Education, claiming that schools were still largely segregated. To learn more about this case, read the New York Times article “Historic Case on Rights Is Reopened in Topeka” and the Topeka Capital Journal article “Discrimination Persists, Smith Says.” [13B]
  • For a more contemporary view of school segregation, students can explore the work of reporter and The 1619 Project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones. LFJ’s interview with Hannah-Jones, “‘Conversations Aren’t Enough,’” is a good place to start. [13B]

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement reminds us that teaching history “has a core goal of helping students understand the forces that shape our world and make connections between the past and the present.” The framework includes a Guiding Principles section that provides strategies for integrating the following practices into instruction: connect to the present, know how to talk about race and racism, educate to realize power, reveal the unseen, and resist telling a simple story. The complete framework is available as an online resource and as a PDF that you can download.