Linda Brown, Of 'Brown V. Board of Education,' Dies At 75. Racism Ended, We're Sure
Linda Brown, who was a third-grader when her father tried to enroll her in an all-white school near her integrated neighborhood in 1950, then sued the school district in a case that eventually ended the "separate but equal" doctrine, has died at the age of 75. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision held that segregated school facilities could by definition not be equal, and a follow-up decision held that all states must move to desegregate schools "with all deliberate speed." Of course, now we have Betsy DeVos running the Department of Education, so if white people think their kids would do better in the system of private and church schools that grew out of the segregation academies devised to resist Brown, well, that's an excellent use of taxpayer funds, just as long as nobody's too openly racist about it.
In a video for the History Channel, Linda's sister Cheryl Brown Henderson, founding president of the Brown Foundation, recalled how her family was recruited by civil rights workers:
They were told, "Find the nearest white school to your home and take your child or children and a witness, and attempt to enroll in the fall, and then come back and tell us what happened, what your experience was like, what was said to you," so they would have specifics to file the legal briefs that would later become Brown v. Board of Education.
The Browns lived in an integrated neighborhood, but Linda had to go to the segregated school, Monroe Elementary, that was 20 blocks away from home, instead of the local all-white school, Sumner, which was just five blocks away. The New York Times obit notes that while Oliver Brown didn't dislike the all-black school, the distance bothered him:
“When I first started the walk it was very frightening to me,” she said, “and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry.”
When administrators at Sumner School told Oliver Brown that he couldn't enroll his daughter, Linda Brown told the Miami Herald in a 1987 interview cited by the Times,
“I could tell something was wrong, and he came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” she said. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”
The Washington Post's obituary notes that the landmark case might have had another name as the lead plaintiff, since it involved five families, but that Oliver Brown was selected by the NAACP "as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster." The more things don't change, huh?
When Brown v. Board finally reached the Supreme Court, the NAACP and the other families in the suit were represented by Thurgood Marshall. Chief Justice Earl Warren did some very judicious judicial arm-twisting to persuade his colleagues to reach a unanimous decision. Not that that necessarily impressed the administrators at Sumner, where, the Post says, Brown was again declined admission on the day of the decision. However,
She later attended an integrated middle school, where she was sometimes hounded by journalists who tracked her grades (she reportedly never earned “less than a B” on her year-end report card), and an integrated high school in Springfield, Mo.
It was only there, she told the New York Times as a senior in 1961, that she began to realize the significance of the court decision.
“Last year in American history class we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions,” she said, “and I thought, 'Gee, some day I might be in history books!'"
Go figure -- that fantastic detail isn't mentioned in the NYT's own obit. Way to win the newspaper war, WaPo.
Later in life, Ms. Brown was a Head Start teacher and a public speaker, as well as working with the Brown Foundation. In 1979, she joined other Topeka parents and the ACLU in reopening the 1954 Brown case, arguing that Topeka schools were still too segregated.The case wasn't settled until 1999, after the school district closed eight elementary schools and opened several new ones, as well as magnet schools. If you're a fan of dramatic irony, Sumner School was one of the schools closed under that plan. Monroe Elementary, the old all-black school, had actually closed earlier, and now houses the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.
And how far have we made it with desegregation? Not there yet, we're afraid. But it sure as hell was encouraging and beautiful to see that, of all things, the shared crisis of gun violence brought kids of all races together Saturday for the March for Our Lives. Jesus, that's one MORE thing the teens are already better at fixing than the adults have been? We really need to get our shit together. They deserve it.
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