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One morning in 1951, Linda Brown and her father walked four blocks from their home in Topeka, Kansas, to the nearby Sumner Elementary School. When they reached the school, Brown’s father asked her to wait in the foyer while he spoke to the principal. She heard raised voices. A while later her father came out, tense. He gripped her hand and walked her home.
“When we got home, he tried to explain to me that they turned me down,” Brown remembered in an interview in 1985 for a PBS documentary on the civil rights movement. “I would not be able to go to the school that my playmates went to because of the colour of my skin.”
Instead Brown, who died this week aged 75, had to walk through the local rail yards, across a main thoroughfare and wait on the corner for a bus that would then take her two miles across town to the all-black elementary school. The journey took more than an hour. “I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold,” she said.
Brown became the face of the watershed civil rights case, Brown v Board of Education, that ended legal segregation in schools. Encouraged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, her father, Oliver, filed a class-action lawsuit along with 13 other parents against the state of Kansas. They claimed that the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation provided that facilities were equivalent — enshrined in US case law in 1896 — was unconstitutional. The case was led by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
The Board of Education’s defence stated that separation in elementary schools (junior and high schools were not segregated in Kansas) prepared black children for later life. Kansas District Court ruled in the board’s favour.
In 1952, the case, along with others from Delaware, Washington DC, South Carolina and Virginia, came to the Supreme Court. Oliver Brown’s name headed the ticket for legal reasons. The Supreme Court heard the claim under the auspices of the Topeka case for political reasons: Kansas is a border state and so clean of the associations of being northern or southern. Oliver Brown’s name came first alphabetically.
“This was not something my father did. This is something that he was part of,” says Linda Brown’s sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson. “The reality check is that he was one among hundreds.”
It took the Supreme Court, guided by the newly-instated pro-reform Chief Justice Earl Warren, two more years to rule — in a unanimous decision — against racial separation in schools. “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Warren’s ruling noted. The precedent for other institutions had been set. One year later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.
By the time she heard the ruling on 17 May 1954, Brown was attending a fully integrated junior high school. In the PBS documentary she remembers coming home to find her mother overjoyed. “When she shared the news with me, I felt a joy too because I felt that my sisters wouldn’t have to walk so far to school the next fall,” she said.
Brown, who was born on February 20 1943, grew up to become an educational consultant and put both her children through Topeka’s schools.
“As an older sister she was somebody I looked up to,” says Ms Brown Henderson. “She adored children. Early childhood education was her interest.”
Together, the sisters founded The Brown Foundation in 1988 to steward the legacy of Brown v Board of Education. The foundation funds scholarships to minority students and research into equal educational opportunity. Brown regularly spoke about the issue of segregation in schools. This autumn, an ebook of essays written by plaintiffs of the case will be published.
Ms Brown Henderson says that her family did not realise the significance of the case at the time. “History doesn’t become history until 50 years have passed so it was hard to know,” she says.
It has now been 64 years since the ruling, yet a segregation of sorts remains in American schools. It is now less a legal problem than a social one. A report in 2014 by the US General Accountability Office found that, between 2001 and 2014, the number of schools considered “intensively segregated”, with more than 90 per cent low income pupils or students of colour, more than doubled.
Brown’s sister says the problem is endemic but that she will continue the fight: “Without good education, you can’t expect to be a good citizen.”