Remembering Linda Brown, Brown v Board of Education
Sixty-eight years ago this September, Linda Brown, alongside her father Oliver Brown, walked up the steps of Sumner Elementary School, an elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. They went there to sign Linda up for class, and were subsequently turned away for being black at a white school. The school was just a few blocks away from their home, much closer and convenient than the black school she was assigned to. The Brown family was angered by the discrimination, and partnered with the NAACP and a dozen other plaintiffs, and eventually became the face of the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education (1954), which rejected racial segregation in U.S. schools.
Linda Brown was born Feb. 20, 1943 to Leola and Oliver Brown in Topeka, Kansas. Her father was the assistant pastor at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church. Brown often remarked that growing up, she had friends of all races, and that her neighborhood in Topeka was incredibly diverse. It wasn’t until she began attending school that she realized that she was treated differently than her friends for being black. As her mother stated, “The same children who came over to play with her, they ate my food, they slept in my bed with my kids and they played with them, and they didn’t see any difference, but then when school started, that is when the difference came in.”
Her father Oliver, along with twelve other black parents and their lawyer, brought a case before federal court in 1951 against the Topeka Board of Education, arguing that school segregation led to unequal treatment. Within a year, similar cases were brought forward from Delaware, D.C., South Carolina and Virginia. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate did not mean equal, and stated that school segregation went against all citizens’ equal treatment under the 14th amendment.
By the time of the ruling, Linda had already begun school at an integrated middle school. She stated that she was happy her younger sisters could benefit from the ruling. Linda went on to become an educational consultant and public speaker, and continued to live in Topeka until her death on March 25, 2018.
While Linda Brown became a professional public speaker, few of her speeches have made it onto the internet, especially in video form. On April 29th, 2004, she spoke at the Chautauqua Institution in New York on the 50th reunion of the Brown v Board of Education ruling. Video of her speech is now on YouTube:
In her speech, she takes listeners through the events that led up to the ruling. It all started for her, she states, “on a balmy day in the fall of 1950, in Topeka, when a mild mannered black man took his plump seven year old daughter by the hand and walked briskly four blocks to the all-white school and tried without success to enroll his child.” Linda takes us through her experiences as a young girl, explaining that the seven block walk across a highway to her bus stop was too cold for her to bear.
Her speech is incredibly personal, and makes it clear how important stories were to the school desegregation movement. The NAACP helped to organize the Topeka parents who who served as the plaintiffs in Brown v Board of Education, encouraging parents to try enrolling their children in white schools. Although black students across the country were struggling with school segregation, stories such as Linda’s provided faces to the fight.
Linda simply wanted to be able to walk to the school closest to her house. In some ways, Topeka was a segregated city, but it was much more integrated than cities in more Southern states. Linda had friends of all races, and has said little about racial segregation beyond her education. While it took a lot of strength for her father, Oliver, to go to Sumner School to enroll her, this was a more feasible task in Topeka than in cities like Little Rock, AR. By speaking up with their stories in Topeka, the Browns and the other families’ landmark case influenced the entire country. As she stated at the Chautauqua Institution, “It may have been a small flame, but it served to set off a mighty flame.”
Unfortunately, the United States has struggled with integrating schools for over fifty years after the initial ruling. Federal troops were called to protect the Little Rock Nine who attended Central High in 1957. Boston was late to the game, which led to the court-ordered Boston Busing Crisis of the 1970s and 80s. Linda herself became re-involved in a resurrected Brown v Board of Education in 1979. With her children now in Topeka schools, she served as a plaintiff arguing that Topeka did not follow through with segregation. A federal judge ruled on the side of the school district, and a new desegregation plan was not put into place until 1993. Families across the U.S. still struggle with segregation today, with stats such as in 2016, over 70% of black students attended segregated schools.
Despite this troubled history with segregation, it is thanks to the Brown family that Americans today have a clear reference point for school integration and why it matters. Without this landmark case, we would not stand where we are today, looking to push the matter forward. As Linda states, “Little did [my father] know that when he stepped off the witness stand, he stepped into the pages of history.”
In her speech, Linda quotes writer Mildred Pitts Walter, “It is not the treatment of a people that degrades them, but their acceptance of it.” Linda Brown’s story has illustrated that every personal story has the potential to turn into greater good. While her story wasn’t that of every black child, her walk to school and her parents’ regret of having to explain segregation to her at a young age became the backbone testimony of Brown v Board of Education. Her family’s will to begin local, at Sumner School, encourages each of us to turn local, but think big. By focusing on our stories and our communities, we can see incredible change at an even larger scale.