It was 12:52 p.m., May 17, 1954. At the long mahogany bench sat the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.* From the red velour hangings behind the bench to the great doors at the back of the room, every seat was filled. Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S., picked up a printed document from his desk and began to read in a firm, clear voice.
There was an awesome quiet in the high ceilinged, marble-columned courtroom. The eight Associate Justices gave Warren rapt attention. In the press section, reporters strained forward to catch every word. Departing from custom, the court had not given newsmen advance copies of the opinion. Shortly after the Chief Justice began reading, the first bulletin clacked out over the Associated Press wires: "Chief Justice Warren today began reading the Supreme Court's decision in the public school segregation cases. The court's ruling could not be determined immediately." At 1:12 the A.P. sent a second message to editors all over the world, who had been awaiting the momentous decision. Warren was attacking segregation in schools, bu " the Chief Justice had not read far enough in the court's opinion for newsmen to say that segregation was being struck down as unconstitutional."
When Warren finished reading at 1:20 the ruling was crystal clear: the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial segregation in the public schools violates the Constitution. The decision was unanimous.
Timely Reassertion. In its 164 years the court had erected many a landmark of U.S. history: Marbury v. Madison, the Bank of the United States case, Dred Scott, the Slaughterhouse cases, the "Sick Chicken case" that killed the NRA, 1952's steel seizure. None of them, except the Dred Scott case (reversed by the Civil War) was more important than the school segregation issue. None of them directly and intimately affected so many American families. The lives and values of some 12 million schoolchildren in 21 states* will be altered, and with them eventually the whole social pattern of the South (see EDUCATION). The international effect may be scarcely less important. In many countries, where U.S. prestige and leadership have been damaged by the fact of U.S. segregation, it will come as a timely reassertion of the basic American principle that "all men are created equal."
The school segregation issue came before the court in cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Kansas and the District of Columbia. In making its ruling, the court issued one opinion covering all of the state cases, a separate one to deal with the special legal aspects in the District of Columbia. A sharp note crept into Chief Justice Warren's voice as he read one section of the District of Columbia opinion: "In view of our decision that the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government."