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Profile: Harold H. Burton
Harold H. Burton was a participant or observer in the following events:
One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. [Library of Congress, 1994; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]
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