AP Was There: Lawyers argue over separate but equal doctrine
WASHINGTON (AP) — EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixty years ago, nine black students enrolled at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, putting to test a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
The court ordered all public schools to act swiftly, integrating with deliberate speed. But it was an unpopular decision that was met with great resistance.
This epic court battle took place well before the nine teens made it through their first day of classes Sept. 25, 1957.
On Dec. 7, 1953, lawyers argued about whether it was proper to maintain separate schools for black and white children as long as their facilities are equal. This story was first published Dec. 7, 1953. These cases, involving South Carolina and Virginia, were among a series of cases from four states and the District of Columbia that the U.S. Supreme Court considered under the Brown v. Board of Education umbrella.
The Associated Press is republishing the 1953 report by reporter Douglas B. Cornell. It is the first in a series of stories — old and new — that will run as part of the AP’s coverage of the Little Rock Nine anniversary.
Clashing arguments of rival attorneys in the austere Supreme Court chamber today reopened the tremendous legal battle over whether the Constitution outlaws separate public schools for white and Negro children.
Lawyers for Negro parents teed off with contentions the 14th Amendment does just that — and it makes no difference, they said, whether schools for Negro pupils are as good as those for whites.
Thurgood Marshall, counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) told the court:
“You can’t separate people and say that one should go here and one should go there, if the facilities are absolutely equal. ...
“Any segregation, which is for the purpose of setting up class or caste distinctions, is of itself in violation of the 14th Amendment.”
Attorneys for South Carolina and Virginia fired back that segregated schools are completely in keeping with the Constitution and the Supreme Court has no power to rule otherwise.
If it does, white-maned 80-year-old John W. Davis said, he doesn’t know what will happen, but:
“I do know, if testimony is to be believed, the result will not be pleasant.”
His voice quavering with emotion, the man who ran for president as a Democrat in 1924 said that “South Carolina does not come here in sackcloth and ashes. It believes its legislation is non-offensive to the Constitution of the United States. ...
“It is convinced that the happiness, the progress and the welfare of these children is best promoted in public schools.”
A Supreme Court ruling that segregation in schools is illegal would affect millions of children in almost a score of states, mostly in the South, which have dual school systems. A decision either way probably is months in the future. It may not come until next spring.
In addition to South Carolina and Virginia, Kansas, Delaware and the District of Columbia are directly involved in the cases now before the highest court of justice.
Three days of arguments started off with the South Carolina and Virginia cases, and on point after point, Davis, Marshall and the attorneys with them took directly opposite stands.
On a higher, more dignified plane, it was much like a couple of youngsters in one of those “does-doesn’t” quarrels. Occasionally the black-robed justices broke in to ask questions or bring the lawyer back to a particular point.
The one momentous, basic issue is this: Do or do not the Equal Rights and Due Process provisions of the Constitution ban segregation in the public schools?
Also at issue is the “separate but equal doctrine” the Supreme Court laid down in 1896. In a case centering on accommodations on a southern train, the court upheld racial segregation provided facilities set aside for Negroes are equal to those reserved for white passengers.
Marshall told the court it should junk this doctrine now and rule that “segregation in and of itself is invalid.”
Davis said the doctrine has been reaffirmed seven different times and, in the words of a federal judge, it is “late to disturb it on any theoretical or sociological” grounds.