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Bolling v. Sharpe

This case was filed on behalf of black children in Washington D.C., challenging segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia, which was governed by federal law. It focused on the psychological effects of segregation on black children, supported by expert testimonies. Unlike the other cases, Bolling was decided under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, as the D.C. schools were not governed by state law but by federal jurisdiction.

Bolling v. Sharpe challenged the segregation of African American children in the public schools of Washington, D.C. Unlike the states, where segregation was mandated by state laws and could be challenged under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the District of Columbia was governed directly by federal statutes. Therefore, the legal strategies used in the Brown cases, which were based on inequality under state laws, were not directly applicable. This required a different constitutional approach.

The Plaintiffs

The case began in 1950, initiated by Elwood Bolling, a black parent, and other parents who were dissatisfied with the segregated school system in D.C. They argued that the schools designated for black students were inferior to those for white students in terms of resources, facilities, and overall educational environment, thus denying black children equal educational opportunities.

Legal Strategy

The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys James M. Nabrit Jr. and George E. C. Hayes, and supported by the NAACP, filed their suit directly against C. Melvin Sharpe, the president of the Board of Education of the District of Columbia. Since the District of Columbia is a federal territory, the legal argument centered on the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment rather than the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The argument was that segregation violated the due process guarantee of liberty, which includes the right to an equal education.

Court Proceedings

The case was initially heard by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The District Court ruled against the plaintiffs, maintaining the status quo of segregated schooling. As with Brown and its related cases, Bolling was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision

In its 1954 decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Bolling v. Sharpe that racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia was unconstitutional. The Court found that racial discrimination in federally regulated schools denied due process of law as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. This was a pivotal aspect of the ruling: it extended the principle that segregation is inherently unequal (established in Brown) to federal jurisdictions, highlighting that the federal government could not deny individuals their liberty, which includes the right to equal treatment.

Impact and Legacy

The significance of Bolling v. Sharpe lies in its articulation that the Constitution’s guarantee of liberty applies equally to federal and state jurisdictions. This decision helped to establish the principle that the federal government must not engage in practices that deny equal protection of the laws, even though the term “equal protection” does not explicitly appear in the Fifth Amendment.


Bolling v. Sharpe often stands in the shadow of Brown v. Board of Education but is critical for understanding the broader scope of desegregation. By ensuring that federal territories could not maintain segregated systems under the guise of due process, the Supreme Court reinforced the unconstitutionality of segregation across all American jurisdictions. This case not only complemented the Brown decisions to provide a more comprehensive national mandate against segregation but also deepened the constitutional doctrine against discriminatory practices by the government, setting a precedent that would influence numerous future rulings on civil rights.

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