Separate but Equal (film)

Last updated
Separate but Equal
Separate But Equal.jpg
VHS cover art
Written by George Stevens Jr.
Directed byGeorge Stevens Jr.
Starring Sidney Poitier
Gloria Foster
Tommy Hollis
Burt Lancaster
Music by Carl Davis
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Executive producersStan Margulies
George Stevens Jr.
Production locations Orlando, Florida
Charleston, South Carolina
Saluda, South Carolina
Washington, D.C.
CinematographyNick Knowland
EditorJohn W. Wheeler
Running time194 minutes
Production companies New Liberty Films
Republic Pictures
Distributor ABC
Original networkABC
Picture formatColor
Audio format Stereo
Original releaseApril 7 (1991-04-07) 
April 8, 1991 (1991-04-08)

Separate But Equal is a 1991 American two-part television miniseries depicting the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education , based on the phrase "Separate but equal". The film stars Sidney Poitier as lead NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, Richard Kiley as Chief Justice Earl Warren, Burt Lancaster (in his final television role) as lawyer John W. Davis (loser of Briggs v. Elliott and the Democratic candidate in the 1924 US presidential election), Cleavon Little as lawyer and judge Robert L. Carter, and Lynne Thigpen as Ruth Alice Stovall. [1]


In 1991, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences rewarded the film Outstanding Miniseries award. [2] The film received 8 nominations for Emmy Awards in 1991 and won 2, and received 2 nominations for Golden Globe Awards in 1992. [3]


The issue before the United States Supreme Court is whether the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution mandates the individual states to desegregate public schools; that is, whether the nation's "separate but equal" policy heretofore upheld under the law, is unconstitutional. The issue is placed before the Court by Brown v. Board of Education and its companion case, Briggs v. Elliott . Many of the justices personally believe segregation is morally unacceptable, but have difficulty justifying the idea legally under the 14th Amendment. Marshall and Davis argue their respective cases. Marshall argues the equal protection clause extends far enough to the states to prohibit segregated schools. Davis counters that control of public schools is a "states' rights" issue that Congress never intended to be covered by the 14th Amendment when it was passed.

Taking the case under advisement, the stalemated justices agree to allow Marshall and Davis an opportunity to reargue their respective cases as to whether the equal protection clause specifically extends to the desegregation of schools. In the interim, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson dies and is replaced by a non-jurist, Governor Earl Warren of California.

Meanwhile, Marshall and his staff are fruitless in finding any research showing the Civil-War era crafters of the 14th Amendment in 1866 intended for schools to be desegregated. On the other hand, Davis and his Ivy League-educated staff find several examples of segregated schools having existed ever since the passage of the equal protection clause. Finally, the NAACP staffers discover a quote by Thaddeus Stevens delivered on the floor of the Senate during the debate over the Amendment, which directly states segregation is constitutionally and morally wrong. They place it at the front of their brief. Marshall's argument is compelling.

As the case is taken under advisement a second time, new Chief Justice Warren is taken on a tour of Gettysburg by his black chauffeur. He also realizes that his chauffeur must sleep in the car because there are no lodging places available for him because of his race. Warren discovers a majority of the Court agrees to strike down the "separate but equal" laws; however, it is important to him that the Court be unanimous. He writes an opinion and takes copies to all of the dissenting justices trying to convince each one of the significance of unanimity. They finally all agree. Warren reads his opinion which states that segregation "has no place" in American society. Even opposing counsel, John W. Davis, privately agrees it is time for society to change.

The film closing acknowledges Thurgood Marshall's own ascent to the Supreme Court in 1967 and explains that the plaintiff in the companion case, a black student named Briggs, never attended an integrated school.


See also

Related Research Articles

Thurgood Marshall American judge and Supreme Court justice

Thurgood Marshall was an American lawyer and civil rights activist who served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from October 1967 until October 1991. Marshall was the Court's first African-American justice. Prior to his judicial service, he successfully argued several cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Court's unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal", and therefore violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, the decision's 14 pages did not spell out any sort of method for ending racial segregation in schools, and the Court's second decision in Brown II only ordered states to desegregate "with all deliberate speed".

Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974), was a significant United States Supreme Court case dealing with the planned desegregation busing of public school students across district lines among 53 school districts in metropolitan Detroit. It concerned the plans to integrate public schools in the United States following the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision.

Separate but equal Legal doctrine used for Racial segregation in the United States

Separate but equal was a legal doctrine in United States constitutional law, according to which racial segregation did not necessarily violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed "equal protection" under the law to all people. Under the doctrine, as long as the facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by "race", which was already the case throughout the states of the former Confederacy. The phrase was derived from a Louisiana law of 1890, although the law actually used the phrase "equal but separate".

Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954), is a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that the Constitution prohibits segregated public schools in the District of Columbia. Originally argued on December 10–11, 1952, a year before Brown v. Board of Education, Bolling was reargued on December 8–9, 1953, and was unanimously decided on May 17, 1954, the same day as Brown. The Bolling decision was supplemented in 1955 with the second Brown opinion, which ordered desegregation "with all deliberate speed". In Bolling, the Court did not address school desegregation in the context of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, which applies only to the states, but rather held that school segregation was unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court observed that the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution lacked an Equal Protection Clause, as in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court held, however, that the concepts of Equal Protection and Due Process are not mutually exclusive, establishing the reverse incorporation doctrine.

Charles Hamilton Houston African-American lawyer

Charles Hamilton Houston was a prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP first special counsel, or Litigation Director. A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Houston played a significant role in dismantling Jim Crow laws, especially attacking segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. He earned the title "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow".

Briggs v. Elliott, 342 U.S. 350 (1952), on appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina, challenged school segregation in Summerton, South Carolina. It was the first of the five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the famous case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional by violating the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Following the Brown decision, the district court issued a decree that struck down the school segregation law in South Carolina as unconstitutional and required the state's schools to integrate.

Equal Protection Clause Guarantee of law protecting all persons equally in the United States

The Equal Protection Clause is part of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The clause, which took effect in 1868, provides "nor shall any State ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". It mandates that individuals in similar situations be treated equally by the law.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. is a leading United States civil rights organization and law firm based in New York City.

Warren Court

The Warren Court was the period in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States during which Earl Warren served as Chief Justice. Warren replaced the deceased Fred M. Vinson as Chief Justice in 1953, and Warren remained in office until he retired in 1969. Warren was succeeded as Chief Justice by Warren Burger. The Warren Court is often considered the most liberal court in US history.

Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956), was a case heard before a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on Montgomery and Alabama state bus segregation laws. The panel consisted of Middle District of Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Northern District of Alabama Judge Seybourn Harris Lynne, and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Rives. The main plaintiffs in the case were Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith. Jeanetta Reese had originally been a plaintiff in the case, but intimidation by segregationists caused her to withdraw in February. She falsely claimed she had not agreed to the lawsuit, which led to an unsuccessful attempt to disbar Fred Gray for supposedly improperly representing her.

Fred Gray (attorney)

Fred David Gray is a civil rights attorney, preacher and activist who practices law in Alabama. He litigated several major civil rights cases in Alabama, including some that reached the United States Supreme Court for rulings. He served as the President of the National Bar Association in 1985, and in 2001 was elected as the first African-American President of the Alabama State Bar.

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938), was a United States Supreme Court decision holding that states which provided a school to white students had to provide in-state education to blacks as well. States could satisfy this requirement by allowing blacks and whites to attend the same school or creating a second school for blacks.

Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958), was a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which denied the Arkansas School Board the right to delay desegregation for 30 months. On September 12, 1958, the Warren Court handed down a per curiam decision which held that the states are bound by the Court's decisions and must enforce them even if the states disagree with them, which asserted judicial supremacy established in Marbury v. Madison. The decision in this case upheld the rulings in Brown v. Board of Education and Brown II which held that the doctrine of separate but equal is unconstitutional.

Murray v. Pearson was a Maryland Court of Appeals decision which found "the state has undertaken the function of education in the law, but has omitted students of one race from the only adequate provision made for it, and omitted them solely because of their color." On January 15, 1936, the court affirmed the lower court ruling which ordered the university to immediately integrate its student population, and therefore created a legal precedent making segregation in Maryland illegal.

Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 U.S. 218 (1964), is a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that the County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia's decision to close all local, public schools and provide vouchers to attend private schools were constitutionally impermissible as violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Desegregation of the Baltimore City Public Schools took place in 1956 after the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in schools went against constitutional law. Desegregation of U.S. schools was part of the civil rights movement. The events that followed desegregation in Baltimore, were important to the civil rights movement across America. Recent scholarship has identified Baltimore's desegregation as an important precursor to the Greensboro sit-ins.

<i>Keys v. Carolina Coach Co.</i>

Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, 64 MCC 769 (1955) is a landmark civil rights case in the United States in which the Interstate Commerce Commission, in response to a bus segregation complaint filed in 1953 by a Women's Army Corps (WAC) private named Sarah Louise Keys, broke with its historic adherence to the Plessy v. Ferguson separate but equal doctrine and interpreted the non-discrimination language of the Interstate Commerce Act as banning the segregation of black passengers in buses traveling across state lines.

June Shagaloff Alexander

June Shagaloff Alexander is a U.S. civil rights activist.

NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963), is a 6-to-3 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States which held that the reservation of jurisdiction by a federal district court did not bar the U.S. Supreme Court from reviewing a state court's ruling, and also overturned certain laws enacted by the state of Virginia in 1956 as part of the Stanley Plan and massive resistance, as violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The statutes here stricken down by the Supreme Court had expanded the definitions of the traditional common law crimes of champerty and maintenance, as well as barratry, and had been targeted at the NAACP and its civil rights litigation.


  1. "Separate But Equal (TV 1991) - IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved 2010-10-13
  2. "Separate But Equal > Awards". AllMovie. Retrieved 2010-10-13.
  3. Separate But Equal - IMDb , retrieved 2019-09-21