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30-60 minutes
  • Civil Rights
  • Journalism
  • Supreme Court
  • 7-12

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate” accommodations for whites and blacks were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” The Plessy doctrine led to legalized racial segregation across the United States in all aspects of public life, including public schools, restrooms and restaurants.

The ruling would stand until almost exactly 58 years later, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate facilities were often inferior for blacks and therefore segregation laws were unconstitutional. In reading the majority opinion in a case challenging segregation in schools, Chief Justice John Warren declared, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The ruling was intended to reverse decades of unequal treatment that African Americans faced in the United States.

Most newspapers around the United States reported on this landmark case, showcasing the mixed reactions. While some states celebrated the ban on segregation, others defended their segregation laws and pushed back against the ruling, noting that the court did not set a timeline for integration in its decision. So, amid the resistance, the Supreme Court addressed implementation in Brown v. Board II a year later.

  • You may want to read to your students the brief background on the case, found above and in the lesson plan. 
  • Have students analyze coverage of the court ruling in three newspapers – The Topeka State Journal, Jackson Daily News and The Providence Journal. You may download and print out the front pages, provide links to the digital copies, or have students view them in the gallery below.
  • Have students – individually or in small groups answer the discussion questions, found below and in the handout. You may also choose to have them first take notes using the Graphic Organizer. 
  • When students are finished, discuss their findings as a group.

  1. The three front pages contain a variety of reactions from across the country but what commonalities do they share? How do they differ? What do those shared aspects indicate of the state of racial relations across the United States at the time?
  2. Are there any underlying messages or themes that the papers are trying to convey through their front pages?  Consider the titles, photographs, accompanying articles and the geographic location of the papers in your analysis.
  3.  Do you think the ruling against a local school district influenced The Topeka Journal coverage? How?
  4. According to The Topeka State Journal, which states had laws that required segregation? Were they concentrated in one part of the country or spread out? Are you surprised by this or is this what you expected? Are any of these papers from states that had school segregation?
  5. What amendment was responsible for granting citizenship to newly freed slaves? How did that relate to segregation? Why was it brought up in The Topeka State Journal article?
  6.  Why do you think the Supreme Court justices didn’t include a plan for implementing desegregation?

  1. Watch this Newseum-produced video of journalist Hodding Carter III explaining how Brown v. Board made the press pay attention to the African-American community. The news media up until this point had minimized the black community. Furthermore, Carter explains that the Supreme Court decision was a reflection of American public opinion rejecting segregation. Ask students: What do you think the role of the press should be in advancing civil rights? Does the press do a sufficient job of this today? Why or why not?
  2. Ask students for their initial answers to the following questions, then have them do research to refine their answers. Does everyone in America have a chance for equal education? Are there still traces of segregation in today’s public schools? How do you think the history of segregation affects education today?

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