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Davis v. County School Board

Filed in Virginia, this case was unique because it was initiated by students themselves, led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns. The students protested against the inferior conditions of their all-black school compared to the local white school. It emphasized the role of youth activism in challenging racial injustices in education.

Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, is another crucial case among the five that were consolidated into the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This case uniquely highlighted the conditions of racial segregation in public schools under the doctrine of “separate but equal” and demonstrated the grassroots origins of resistance against institutionalized racism in education.


The case originated in 1951 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, when a 16-year-old student named Barbara Johns led a student strike at Robert Russa Moton High School to protest the deplorable conditions at the black school compared to the far superior facilities at the nearby white school. The black school was overcrowded and underfunded, using makeshift wooden buildings as classrooms, which were neither safe nor conducive to learning.

The Plaintiffs

Encouraged by local NAACP members, the students and their families filed a lawsuit against the County School Board. The NAACP, seeing an opportunity to challenge the broader legality of segregation, took up the case. Under the guidance of attorneys Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill, the complaint initially sought equal educational facilities but was later amended to challenge the constitutionality of segregation itself.

Legal Strategy

The legal strategy in Davis was to demonstrate the clear inequality between black and white educational facilities and to argue that such disparities violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. By documenting the inferior conditions and resources available to black students, the plaintiffs aimed to prove that segregation inherently led to unequal educational opportunities.

Court Proceedings

The case was heard in 1952 by a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The court acknowledged the inferior conditions of the black schools but followed the prevailing precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that the plaintiffs were only entitled to equal physical facilities, not integration. This ruling mirrored other lower court decisions in related cases, which also found for the school boards while noting the inequalities that existed.

Supreme Court Decision

When Davis v. County School Board reached the Supreme Court, it was consolidated with Brown v. Board of Education and the other related cases. In its 1954 decision, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson for public education, stating that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and thus, segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Impact and Legacy

Davis v. County School Board played a critical role in highlighting the actual conditions of segregated schools and the grassroots activism that initiated the case, marking a significant moment in the civil rights movement. The decision had a profound impact, particularly in the South, where resistance to desegregation was most vehement. Prince Edward County itself chose to close its public schools from 1959 to 1964 rather than integrate, demonstrating the extreme measures some localities would take in response to the ruling.


Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County is notable not only for its contribution to the landmark Brown decision but also for its origin in student-led activism. It underscores the role of young people in shaping civil rights advocacy and the powerful impact of community engagement in fighting systemic inequality. This case exemplifies how legal challenges to segregation were deeply intertwined with broader social movements, ultimately contributing to significant legal and societal transformations in the United States.

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