Brown v. Board of Education and the Future of Civil Rights

On May 17, 1954, America reached a milestone in its fight for justice and equality when the Supreme Court released its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The Court reached a unanimous decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and outlawed segregation in public schools. For the millions of African-American children and parents forced to deal with the consequences of this institutionalized discrimination, the ruling represented a turning point in their fight for basic civil rights and freedom.

Sixty years later, Brown v. Board still impels many to fight all forms of discrimination and protect the civil rights of marginalized groups. Today, individuals and organizations advocate for the rights of the LGBT community, immigrants, and other underrepresented persons. Pro bono attorneys have been at the forefront of many of these issues, using their unique skills to ensure that every individual has freedom from discrimination.

Attorneys from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison*† followed the precedent set by Brown v. Board and took their case for same-sex marriage rights before the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor. They joined attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic in challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Court ruled that DOMA violates equal protection by denying married same-sex couples recognition under federal law, and that the federal government cannot discriminate against married same-sex couples for the purposes of determining federal benefits and protections.

Covington & Burling*† attorneys have also dedicated a significant portion of their pro bono work to civil rights, particularly focusing on the issue of racial profiling. Covington pro bono lawyers devoted numerous hours and resources to proving that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona racially profiled Latinos and illegally detained minorities. In New York City, they convinced a New York federal judge to order changes to the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies after finding they disproportionately discriminated against Hispanics and African-Americans.

Of course, much work still needs to be done before the individual freedoms of every person are guaranteed, even in the area of school segregation. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice continues to actively enforce and monitor nearly 200 desegregation cases where school districts have not yet fulfilled their legal obligation to eliminate segregation. Many groups are still fighting for equality, and it is essential for every citizen to advocate for tolerance. As President Barack Obama stated on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, “Let us march together, meet our obligations to one another, and remember that progress has never come easily, but even in the face of impossible odds, those who love their country can change it.”

*denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project