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Thurgood Marshall
Scientific evidence supported his case against segregation

In 1954, Mr. Marshall invoked scientific research to demonstrate the harmful effects of school segregation. Learn how this strategy can be applied to modern-day cases of social injustice.

by Allison Plyer

Feb. 7, 2003 | During Reconstruction and into the mid-1900s, the South and much of the nation were racially segregated. In the South particularly, an apartheid system prevailed – from streetcars to lunch counters to public schools, facilities for African Americans were separate – but not “equal.”

Thurgood Marshall circa 1950 (Photo used with permission of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center)

In 1954, a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall led the challenge to the separate-but-equal doctrine and used scientific evidence to help convince the U.S. Supreme Court that school segregation should be abolished.

Court cases against segregation...

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began campaigning against unequal educational opportunities in the 1930s. Through multiple legal battles, they successfully convinced the Supreme Court that separate law schools and other graduate schools for African Americans were anything but “equal.”

But Thurgood Marshall, grandson of a slave and raised in an activist family in Baltimore, believed that segregation itself was damaging to African Americans. He believed that only through integrating could both groups achieve their equality (1). But he couldn’t simply state his beliefs to the Supreme Court. He had to back them up with evidence.

Supporting his argument with science...

Mr. Marshall and his colleagues at the NAACP read about the latest scientific studies regarding African American children and their psychological development. They carefully noted the authors, dates and titles of the peer-reviewed articles that supported their perceptions that segregation made black children feel inferior and reduced their motivation to learn.

When presenting his argument to the Supreme Court, Mr. Marshall was able to quote from more than 29 different scientific sources to support his claim that school segregation kept children from achieving their potential.

Mr. Marshall’s evidence was convincing and in the now-famous “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited psychological studies as part of the justification for abolishing school segregation (2).

Modern-day science for social justice...

Today, universities around the country continue to advance our knowledge on everything from child development to substance abuse to housing discrimination.

Here are a couple of examples of such research:

Are 'Emily' and 'Brendan' more employable than 'Lakisha' and 'Jamal'?
rofessors at the University of Chicago and MIT recently conducted a study that points to substantial hiring discrimination in the marketplace today. They sent thousands of resumes to companies in response to want ads. The resumes presented identical qualifications for the job and differed only in the name of the applicant. Some were more typically “Black” names and some were more typically “White” names. The “White” applicants received 50 percent more responses than the “Black” applicants (3). [Download the actual paper (in PDF format – so you'll need Acrobat Reader) at gsb.uchicago.edu/pdf/bertrand.pdf]

Use of Black English and racial discrimination in urban housing markets
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a study that concluded that some rental agents used linguistic clues to identify and discriminate against African Americans and women calling about apartments for rent. A multiracial group of men and women made hundreds of calls in response to 79 advertised apartments, using scripts that would signal the caller’s race and class. The study concluded that African Americans were more likely to be told the apartment was no longer available and more likely to be charged an application fee than Whites. And “lower income” African American women were charged $32 more per application than “middle class” white men (4). [Download the actual paper (in PDF format – so you'll need Acrobat Reader) at www.pstc.brown.edu/publications/massey.pdf]

Published studies such as these are excellent ammunition when advocating for change or seeking funding for services in your community. And, as we've learned from the story of young Thurgood Marshall – published scientific studies make for a strong case.


(1) Thurgood Marshall – American Revolutionary by Juan Williams

(2) Opinion of the Court, Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

(3) Bertrand, N. & Mullainathan, S. (2002) "Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination." University of Chicago and MIT.[Read more about this study... or download the actual paper (in PDF format -- so you'll need Acrobat Reader) at gsb.uchicago.edu/pdf/bertrand.pdf]

(4) Massey, D. & Lundy, G. (2001) "Use of Black English and Racial Discrimination in Urban Housing Markets. New Methods and Findings." Urban Affairs Review. 36(4) 452. [Read more about this study... or download the actual paper (in PDF format -- so you'll need Acrobat Reader) at www.pstc.brown.edu/publications/massey.pdf]

This article is a collaboration between the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and the Jim Dunn Center for Anti-Racist Community Organizing at The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans. The author, Allison Plyer, is a Senior Consultant at the Community Data Center.

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Last modified: February 7, 2003