Brown v. Board: Assumptions, Results, and the Little Rock Nine (by Brittnee Rhynes)


In this lesson, students will engage in critical analysis of the assumptions and results of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  Students will question the traditional “progress narrative” to determine how effective the ruling and its implementation actually were.


The lesson will ask students to engage in critical analysis of school desegregation legislation, specifically the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  The lesson hinges on an alternative reading of school desegregation that sheds light on the shortcomings in implementing the legislation, as well as the new problems that were created by legislation that was meant to be a solution to problems in education.  Students will access the material by reading primary and secondary sources relating to the Little Rock Nine, the first group of African American students to attend an all-white school in the United States after the Brown ruling.

Students will develop their critical reading skills as they engage with sources describing the events surrounding school desegregation.  By engaging with material that provides a critical evaluation of Brown v. Board, students will achieve an understanding of the ruling and its consequences as not wholly positive.  This information will be weighed against the advantages of school desegregation in order to achieve a more accurate, well rounded sense of the historical moment in which Brown v. Board occurred.  Students will expand this understanding as they engage with their perceptions of the education system today as it pertains to their lives.

Essential Understanding

The Brown v. Board ruling, while beneficial in many ways, was not well received by citizens at large, and its implementation was characterized by many missteps.

Essential Questions

1) Was the Brown v. Board ruling in the best interest of the communities it claimed to serve, namely Black Americans?

2) What does the diversity of responses indicate about the intention of the legislation versus its felt effects?

3) What is the response to Brown v. Board, as well as to the subsequent efforts at school integration?

4) What is the significance of the response?

5) What are the assumptions that the Brown v. Board ruling makes?


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is the landmark Supreme Court case that required school desegregation across the United States.  It dictated, for the first time, that separation of the races in education would no longer be tolerated, and it prompted the first attempts at integration.  The Little Rock Nine were nine Arkansas high school students who bravely paved the way for African American students to enter previously all white schools.

Lani Guinier claims that the way the Brown case was argued and implemented led to the troubled legacy that extends into the present day.  He says that “in this court-centered universe, the tactic of desegregation became the ultimate goal, rather than the means to secure educational equity.”  Brown v. Board, he argues, constituted a redefinition of “equality, not as a fair and just distribution of resources, but as the absence of formal, legal barriers that separated the races.”[1]  Another problem the author mentions in the case brought before the court was that it relied heavily on notions of Black self-hatred and stigma as a result of segregation.  While the author acknowledges the validity of these claims, he also states that “segregation’s evils had social and economic, not just psychological, ramifications.”  And within the argument about the psychological effects of segregation, he notes, as many others have, that whites were also affected.  Segregation, he says, “convinced working-class whites that their interests lay in white solidarity rather than collective cross-racial mobilization around economic interests.”[2]

He also brings in the argument some critics have made that through integration, “what blacks won was not freedom, but tokenism.”[3]  In his continued portrayal of the shortcomings of the case, the author asserts that there is still a long way to go toward equality in this country, and he questions how much we can rely on legislation to ever make that happen.  “Formal legal equality granted through the courts could never guarantee economic, political, and social opportunity for the mass of blacks, for whom civil rights alone were not the measure of success.”[4]  He ties the history of Brown to the present day with the troubling, but unfortunately resonant claim that “if the problem is that separate is inherently unequal, then equality is simply presumed when the separation is eliminated.  Any remaining inequality is the fault of black people themselves.”[5]  He argues that in the wake of school desegregation racism is far from eliminated, but it has become more subtle, and thereby more difficult to combat.

Clive Webb offers helpful historical context to the way the Brown ruling was received in the conservative Southern states.  He notes that “the process of school desegregation was beset by obstruction and delay,” even though massive resistance was no longer the most common form of defiance in the face of progressive legislation.[6]   Southern states, fearing further federal interference, had just begun taking measures to satisfy the requirements of “separate but equal” in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.[7]

When the Brown ruling came out, white segregationists “fram[ed] their resistance to the Supreme Court decision within the strict doctrine of states’ rights.”[8]  Explicit acts of racial violence no longer characterized the majority of opposition, but segregationists continued to use their influence to manipulate the Black community.  This included firing Black employees who attempted to register to vote or send their children to desegregated schools.

There was a shift from “massive resistance” to “minimum compliance,”[9] such that steps were taken to implement legislative mandates in the most minimally invasive way so as to not disrupt the status-quo.  This legacy can be traced up to the present day, in that “even as the southern states bury the segregationist old guard, their spirit of resistance against federal authority continues to haunt the political landscape of the region.”[10]

The ruling in Brown v. Board, in overturning the standard of “separate but equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson, arguably established the foundation for desegregation in all other areas.  However, Brown v. Board was not the end of the road in the battle for African American civil rights, and the implementation of the ruling hardly went smoothly.  The story of the Little Rock Nine is just one example of the obstacles to school desegregation that characterized the response to Brown.



Little Rock Nine Timeline

Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix

Photos of events surrounding Little Rock Nine


Poster sized paper


Students will have read the introduction materials for homework the night before in preparation for the lesson.  At the beginning of class, frame the lesson by telling students that we will be examining the Brown v. Board ruling, paying specific attention to the public’s response and the obstacles to implementation of the ruling.  To focus our study, we will look primarily at the story of the Little Rock Nine to gain an understanding of the events and attitudes that came out of the Brown ruling.

Give each student a copy of the timeline tracking significant moments for the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School with the Little Rock Nine.  Put students in groups of 5.  Have them read through the events listed in the timeline.  After reading through the whole timeline, have each group work together to choose 5 events from the timeline that span a broad section of the time frame.  For instance, students may not choose five events from August to September of 1957.  Working together, students must track the progression between each of their five events.  Students will write two sentences to connect one event to the next.

Give each group of students a poster-sized sheet of paper.  Students will write their events, in chronological order, on the sheets of paper.  After all groups are finished, groups will present their progression before the class.  They will explain how they see each of the events working together and building on each other.  Students will be asked to pay special attention to any obstacles they see coming up in the implementation of the Brown ruling.

After students have engaged with the timeline, go through the events with them, expanding on them to further explain the exact progression of the drawn out process toward desegregation at Central High.

Next, students will be asked to read and take notes on the NY Times primary source, “STUDENTS UNHURT.”  Students will work individually, taking notes in the double entry format, whereby the paper is divided in two sections, with the column on the left being filled with quotes or direct textual evidence, and the column on the right with their commentary or responses to the quotes they collect.  After twenty minutes, we will come back together.  Students will then pair share their reactions to the article.  Using equity cards, call on individual students to share a quote that stood out to them, as well as their interpretation or commentary on the quote.  Call on 7 students to share with the class.

Finally, students will circulate around the room to view photos taped to the wall showing the events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock Central High.  Next to each photo, there will be space for students to respond.  Students will be given ten minutes to walk around the room, writing their responses to the photos and reading each others’ thoughts.

For homework, students will read “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix.”  Once again, have students take notes, using the same format.  After finishing the piece, students will write a paragraph summing up their understanding of Hurston’s argument.  We will discuss the argument in class the following day, as well as some other responses to Brown v. Board that criticize the way in which it was implemented, specifically in terms of its effects on Black communities.

As an exit ticket, each student will submit a half-sheet answering the following questions:

1) Why do you think people opposed desegregating the schools?

2) Do you still see evidence of segregation in your school or community?

Additional Sources

Irvine, Russell W. and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine. “The Impact of the Desegregation Process on the Education of Black Students: Key Variables.” The Journal of Negro Education 52, no. 4 (Autumn, 1983): pp. 410-422.

Milner, H. Richard and Tyrone C. Howard. “Black Teachers, Black Students, Black Communities, and Brown: Perspectives and Insights from Experts.” The Journal of Negro Education 73, no. 3, Special Issue: Brown v. Board of Education at 50 (Summer, 2004): pp. 285-297.

Williams, Juan. “Chapter Four: Hall Monitors from the 101st; the Little Rock Story.” In Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, 92. New York: Viking, 1987.


1) Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

2) Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.

3) Students identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations.

4) Students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events and recognize that events could have taken other directions.

5)Examine and analyze the key events, policies, and court cases in the evolution of civil rights, including Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, and California Proposition 209.

[1] Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma,” (06/01, 2004). 95

[2] Ibid.96

[3] Ibid.96

[4] Ibid.98

[5] Ibid.


[7] Clive Webb, “A Continuity of Conservatism: The Limitations of Brown v. Board of Education,” (05/01, 2004).328

[8] Ibid. 330

[9] Ibid.332

[10] Ibid.336

2 thoughts on “Brown v. Board: Assumptions, Results, and the Little Rock Nine (by Brittnee Rhynes)

  1. 1. Low tech message boards will never go out of style and for good reason.
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