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In his first important opinions since he became Chief Justice last October, Earl Warren was clear and concise. The court was not surprised that the history of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution "(Nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws . . .") did not clearly show an intention to prohibit segregation in the schools. In 1868, there was little public education for white children, and less for Negroes. To decide the present case, the court had to consider "public education in the light of its full development."
"Today education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments . . . It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
For Hearts & Minds. For many years the South', aware that it might be brought under Supreme Court scrutiny, has justified its segregation policy as giving "equal but separate" facilities to white and Negro children. This phrase was used by the court in an 1896 case involving Jim Crow transport. This week's opinion flatly rejected "equal but separate" as a guiding principle in education.
Even if physical facilities are equal, said the court, there are intangible factors which prevent "separate" from being "equal." "To separate [Negro children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone . . . We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Because of the complex problems involved, the Supreme Court deferred decision on the method of implementing the new policy. It asked all sides to present arguments next fall on 1) when schools should be ordered to abolish segregation and 2) who (a special master or the district courts) should set and enforce the terms under which it will be abolished.
For a scholarly New York Negro lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, the court's decision was the victory of a lifetime. Marshall, a graduate of Jim Crow schools, handled the state cases for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Said he: "The most gratifying thing, in addition to the fact it was in favor of our side, is the unanimous decision and the language used. Once and for all, it's decided, completely decided."