“My father pondered, ‘Why? Why should my child walk … miles when there’s a school only four blocks away?’”
— Linda Brown
Linda Brown was born on Feb. 20, 1942, in Topeka, Kansas. She died in her hometown on March 25, 2018. But, during her 76 years, she became a symbol of the fight for justice and civil rights for all people in the United States.
Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer tweeted: “Sixty-four years ago a young girl from Topeka brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America. Linda Brown’s life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can have an incredible impact and that by serving our community we can truly change the world.”
Separate, but equal
Linda Brown’s story really starts 46 years before she was born. In the 1890s, Louisiana operated its railroad under the Separate Car Act, which required separate accommodations for blacks and whites. Homer Plessy, an “octoroon,” a word that was once used to designate a person who was of one-eighth African or African American ancestry, occupied a seat in a “whites-only” railroad car, was arrested, and was charged with violating the Separate Car Act. Judge John Howard Ferguson found him guilty and fined him $25.
The case was appealed to higher courts and eventually was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1896, the Court ruled that racial segregation was constitutional as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision became known as the “separate but equal” ruling, and it served as justification for segregating all other public facilities. But, while there did not seem to be any significant difference in “white-only” and other railway cars, this was manifestly untrue of other facilities, such as cafés, public toilets, and schools.
“I didn’t comprehend color of skin. I only knew that I wanted to go to Sumner with my friends.”
— Linda Brown
For at least the next six decades, schools (as well as other facilities) were segregated throughout the south by law (de jure segregation), but also in other states (de facto segregation). In 1950, Linda Brown’s father Oliver, an African American welder for the Santa Fe Railroad, walked his daughter a few blocks from their home in Topeka, Kansas, to enroll her at Sumner School.
The segregated all-white school refused to admit her, and Oliver Brown joined a lawsuit involving 12 other parents. Although the cases are usually presented alphabetically by plaintiffs’ names, and one of the parents was Darlene Brown (no relation), lawyers for the NAACP decided to put Oliver Brown first so that the suit would be headed by a man, who filed on behalf of his daughter.
“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all-black school.”
— Linda Brown
Thurgood Marshall argued the case for the plaintiffs, claiming that Linda Brown’s right to equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, was being violated. The unanimous opinion of the Court was that, “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Marshall was eventually appointed as the first African American Supreme Court Justice.
One of the key factors considered by the Court in coming to its conclusion was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers (which, apparently, was the case in Topeka), segregation by itself was harmful to black students and unconstitutional.
“I remember a couple of times turning around and going back home because I — you know, it was a small town. I got really, really cold and would get home and be crying. And mother, you know, she would try to warm me up and tell me it would be all right and everything.”
— Linda Brown
Almost immediately, many states acted to resist the direction of the Supreme Court to desegregate. Texas Attorney General John Shepperd organized a campaign to erect state-mandated legal barriers to integration. In 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus mobilized the state’s National Guard to block black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. In Mississippi, Medgar Evers brought a suit against the Jackson school system. Byron De La Beckwith of the White Citizens Council murdered him. Gov. George Wallace, holding an ax handle, blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama so that black students could not enroll.
Consequently, the Supreme Court heard arguments by school districts that requested relief from the chore of desegregating. But the Court ordered that integration be accomplished with “all deliberate speed.” Many schools interpreted this “Brown II” instruction as meaning “not immediately”
One of the problems with the decision was that there were no specific instructions for when or how the process of integration was to be carried out. For example, a U.S. District Court ruled that the Prince Edward County, Virginia, school district did not have to desegregate immediately. However, in 1959, the decision was overruled through another review of the Brown case, and the county stopped appropriating money for public schools, which remained closed until 1964.
Then, in 1978, Linda Brown — who had her own children enrolled in Topeka schools — reopened the Brown suit, citing the fact that the “open enrollment” policy adopted by school districts resulted in de facto segregation. The end result was the allocation of money for “magnet schools” that were designed to attract gifted white students to mostly minority schools.
“Sometimes I wonder if we really did the children and the nation a favor by taking this case to the Supreme Court. I know it was the right thing for my father and mother to do then, but after nearly 40 years we find the Court’s ruling unfulfilled.”
— Linda Brown, 1998
Now, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, it is clear that Linda’s parents did the right thing and that the Court’s rulings over the years have been unfulfilled, but we must keep trying to achieve the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.