Law & Courts

U.S. Supreme Court Declines Bid to Rename ‘Brown v. Board of Education’

By Mark Walsh — January 08, 2024 3 min read
Linda Brown Smith stands in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kan., on May 8, 1964. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away an unusual request to rename its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in recognition of a companion desegregation case from South Carolina.

The court acted with a routine order without comment or dissent in In Re Nathaniel Briggs.

Descendants of the litigants who challenged racial segregation in South Carolina in the case known as Briggs v. Elliott argued that their case was the first to reach the Supreme Court in the early 1950s, and only because of procedural and clerical reasons was the Brown case put at the top of the landmark 1954 decision that outlawed separate schools for Black students.

“The plaintiffs in Briggs filed first in United States District Court, filed first in the United States Supreme Court, and brought the case that was argued by the Honorable Thurgood Marshall based upon the dissent in the South Carolina case,” says the filing by the Briggs descendants, who noted that the Supreme Court sent the case back to South Carolina for consideration of a state report on efforts to equalize spending for Black and white schools.

“When the petitioners returned to this court, the clerk inadvertently docketed the Briggs case after Brown instead of placing it back as the first case filed,” said the Nov. 6 filing, which was styled as a “petition for a writ of mandamus"—a request that the court mandate the change. “This inadvertent clerical misstep deprived the petitioners their rightful place in history in spite of the great physical, emotional, and financial risks taken by each petitioner. The petitioners request that their place in history be restored by the simple act of reordering the petitioners to the just and accurate place.”

Nathaniel Briggs, the youngest son of South Carolina lead plaintiff Harry Briggs, told Education Week last spring when the effort was announced that, “For historical correctness, it needs to be said which case came first.”

There was more to the story, or at least some competing theories, as to why the Supreme Court put the Brown case from Kansas at the top of the four state cases consolidated in the decision.

The other cases making up the landmark Brown decision were from Delaware and Virginia. In contrast, a fifth case, from the District of Columbia, resulted in a separate 1954 high court decision, Bolling v. Sharpe, based on the 5th Amendment’s due-process clause rather than the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, which applies only to the states.

A desire by the court to put a Midwestern case on top?

Some historians believe the court placed the Brown case on top because Kansas was a Midwestern state and not a former slave state. Justice Tom C. Clark, a member of the court that decided the cases, said as much to author Richard B. Kluger for his 1975 book Simple Justice, a highly regarded account of all five cases.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, the Topeka railroad worker who was the lead plaintiff in the Brown lawsuit, told Education Week last spring that while she did not oppose the South Carolina effort, she had expressed her misgivings to the South Carolina descendants. There had been efforts to desegregate Topeka’s schools for years before the Brown suit was filed, she reminded them. Also, the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research had long worked to promote the history and legacies of all five cases that made up the Brown and Bolling decisions.

In their motion to the court, the South Carolina descendants argued that the litigants of each of the companion cases to Brown “faded into relative anonymity.”

“Plaintiffs of the companion cases fought equally as hard for desegregation, and in some cases paid a much higher price, but they received none of the national attention or support that came along with the decision in Brown v. Board,” the legal filing said.

They also pointed out that Marshall, the legal director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the architect of the strategy to attack racial segregation in education, argued the Briggs case in state and federal courts in South Carolina and before the Supreme Court. Marshall, later the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice, did not go to Topeka and his lieutenants argued the Kansas case before the high court.

The descendants’ filing argued that public school segregation was harsher in South Carolina than in the other locales making up the Brown decision. They argued that Clarendon County, S.C., remains heavily segregated and the enrollment of Scott’s Branch High School, which was at the center of the Briggs litigation, has a 96 percent minority enrollment today.


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts School District Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies Are Piling Up
More than 200 school districts are now suing the major social media companies over the youth mental health crisis.
7 min read
A close up of a statue of the blindfolded lady justice against a light blue background with a ghosted image of a hands holding a cellphone with Facebook "Like" and "Love" icons hovering above it.
Law & Courts In 1974, the Supreme Court Recognized English Learners' Rights. The Story Behind That Case
The Lau v. Nichols ruling said students have a right to a "meaningful opportunity" to participate in school, but its legacy is complex.
12 min read
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William O. Douglas is shown in an undated photo.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, shown in an undated photo, wrote the opinion in <i>Lau</i> v. <i>Nichols</i>, the 1974 decision holding that the San Francisco school system had denied Chinese-speaking schoolchildren a meaningful opportunity to participate in their education.
Law & Courts Supreme Court Declines to Hear School District's Transgender Restroom Case
The case asked whether federal law protects transgender students on the use of school facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
4 min read
People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
People stand on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Law & Courts What a Proposed Ban on AI-Assisted ‘Deep Fakes’ Would Mean for Cyberbullying
Students who create AI-generated, intimate images of their classmates would be breaking federal law, if a new bill is enacted.
2 min read
AI Education concept in blue: A robot hand holding a pencil.