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In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education the United States Supreme Court reversed policies affirmed nearly sixty years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson and ordered the integration of America's schools. The older case had held that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection could be reconciled with segregation so long as the facilities made accessible to people were "equal." In Plessy, the specific issue was railroad cars, but the broader policy of separate but equal was applied to all sorts of institutions, including schools.
But in Brown the Court held that separate was inherently unequal; the very process of separating one group of children from another sent a harmful message. In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, "to separate them 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." Consequently, the Court said, America's schools must set about the task of integration "with all deliberate speed."