The courts, of course, reach only so far. And Brown's failure to live up to expectations may be a lesson on the limits of that reach. Segregated housing patterns, intractable racial prejudice, and massive early resistance all made school desegregation much tougher to accomplish than most people imagined.
For more than a decade, the decision existed only on paper. If the original ruling was elegant and clear-cut, Brown II - the decision a year later instructing how to implement integration - was not. The mandate for the South to desegregate its public schools "with all deliberate speed" was generally interpreted as "never."
The Supreme Court hoped to mollify Southerners by not establishing deadlines, says James Patterson, a history professor at Brown University and author of "Brown v. the Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy."
But by 1964, 10 years after the decision, less than 2 percent of Southern blacks went to school with whites. The justices "imagined [the resistance] would be bad, but I don't think they imagined it would be as bad as it was," says Professor Patterson.
Real integration didn't begin in the South until the late 1960s. In the North - which often looked down on the South's de jure segregation even as its less direct practices encouraged segregation in its own schools - it was even slower.
"Jim Crow was an embarrassment [to Northerners], but that didn't mean they were strongly egalitarian when it came to race relations," says Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale University. "After Brown, it changed the playing field. The question was no longer if you were going to have separate facilities by law. The question was whether you'd go after more subtle forms of racism."
By the 1970s and '80s, however, significant desegregation was finally happening. Dozens of cities got court orders to achieve real, rather than token, racial balance in their schools, and busing and district-wide magnet schools were underway.