Civil and Human Rights · History · Obituaries · Public affairs

Long live the memory of Linda Brown, almost-forgotten kick-starter of the American civil rights movement

Linda Brown at Sumner Elementary

Schoolgirl Linda Brown walks on by Sumner Elementary in Topeka Kansas

Linda Brown died on Sunday in Topeka, Kansas, aged 76, all but forgotten in her own land, let alone in far-away places like New Zealand. But before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, before even Nelson Mandela became household names, Linda Brown was at the very start of the fight to bring down the apartheid-like system of “Segregation” enacted in America’s South to stop the black population enjoying their freedom from slavery.

In 1951, Brown, then aged nine, was a third grade school pupil in Topeka, her home town. Like all her black schoolfriends, she was required by law to attend Monroe Elementary, a “segregated” black school three kilometres from her home, rather than the nearby Sumner Elementary, which was only for white children.

Her father, Oliver Brown, a welder and pastor, tried to enrol her in Sumner Elementary and when she was refused, he challenged the refusal in court. Her case got all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled, in 1954, that the refusal was unconstitutional. The case, which opened my eyes when I learnt about it at university in the 1980s, was called, in legalese, Oliver L Brown et al v Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al, or, for short, Brown v Board of Education.

It led to the desegregation of America’s school system, allowing non-white children to attend their local formerly whites-only schools, which always offered better facilities and better schooling than the poorly resourced black schools. It was the first big victory against the Jim Crow laws that had kept black Americans marginalised since the Civil War ended slavery in 1865. Further court cases followed; followed, eventually, by Congress passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to legislate equal rights for all, then the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure black citizens could vote in those states that even then still tried to stop them from voting (as an aside, it wasn’t until another Supreme Court case in 1967 that black Americans were allowed to marry white Americans).

Oliver Brown’s court case on behalf of his daughter was taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a famous civil rights group founded in 1909 to advance the rights of America’s oppressed blacks, whose status—especially in the southern former slave states—had barely improved since Abolition.

“My father was like a lot of other black parents here in Topeka at that time,” Linda Brown said in a 1985 interview. “They were concerned not about the quality of education that their children were receiving, they were concerned about the… distance that the child had to go to receive an education.”

Brown and her sisters had to walk across railway tracks and a busy road to catch the bus to Monroe Elementary, and so it was this distance, more than a disparity in quality between Monroe and Sumner, that initially motivated her father.

“He felt that it was wrong for black people to have to accept second-class citizenship, and that meant being segregated in their schools, when in fact, there were schools right in their neighbourhoods that they could attend, and they had to go clear across town to attend an all-black school. And this is one of the reasons that he became involved in this suit, because he felt that it was wrong for his child to have to go so far a distance.”

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution—enacted in 1868 to grant the freed slaves the same rights as white Americans—declared that “no State shall… deny to any person… the equal protection of the laws.” But the Jim Crow segregation laws passed in many southern states after Abolition had been upheld as legal until Brown v Board of Education, particularly by an 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v Ferguson, which ruled that separate facilities for different races were allowed under the Constitution as long as those separate facilities were equal. Which of course they were not.

The NAACP lawyers combined 13 cases of refusals to enrol black children in white Topeka schools into a single court case for legal emphasis and convenience. They put Oliver Brown’s name at its head so as to have a man as the main applicant, something seen as being important to the white male judges of the day. The twelve other applicants were mothers of refused children.

The case was initially heard by the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The three judges rejected it, upheld Plessy v Ferguson and declared that, though segregation in public education had a detrimental effect on “negro children”, “negro and white schools” in Topeka had “substantially equal” buildings, transportation, curriculums and teacher qualifications.

This ruling was not a defeat but the outcome the NAACP hoped for, as the organisation wanted to get the case before the US Supreme Court, which has the final say about  whether a law is legal under the Constitution.  By 1954, when Brown v Board of Education was decided after three years in the judicial system, the nine-member Supreme Court had a liberal majority under Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had been appointed the previous year. Brown was to be the first of many civil rights cases heard by the Warren Court to produce landmark judgements that changed American society forever.

The NAACP’s chief counsel was Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 was to be appointed to the Supreme Court as its first black justice. Marshall combined Brown with similar school cases from other states, making it the lead one because of the earlier Kansas ruling that the separate black and white schools in Topeka were “substantially equal,”  something he wanted to decisively challenge. That the winds of change were beginning to blow was exemplified by supporting briefs from US Federal Attorney General James P McGranary and Secretary of State Dean Acheson that America’s racial discrimination (hitherto upheld by the courts on behalf of the states) was hurting America’s image and interests abroad as the Cold War with Soviet Russia intensified.

The Supreme Court heard the case in 1953. Documents revealed since show that then-Chief Justice Fred M Vinson was opposed to overturning Plessy v Ferguson, but some senior justices stalled for time. They could not reach a decision and the court did not issue a judgement. Then Vinson died, Earl Warren was appointed, and the case was heard again with additional arguments. Much internal debate took place between the justices. Warren wanted to issue a nine-nil unanimous declaration that segregation was unconstitutional and thus illegal, but some of the justices held out. Eventually all agreed with Warren, who read his earthquake of a judgement on 17 May 1954. Its conclusion stated:

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

This historic judgement was, of course, only the beginning of the end of segregation. Many states, including the supposedly “liberal” New York, had de facto school segregation. Some school boards with statutory segregation prevaricated, leading to the so-called Brown II of 1955, in which the Supreme Court ordered desegregation to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” The bright yellow school buses of today’s America came about as a result of court-ordered “busing” of children between neighbourhoods to attend the same schools as children from richer or poorer neighbourhoods.

And beyond Brown, many hard battles lay ahead for black Americans. Far more than schools were segregated; so were trains and buses, parks and libraries, even restaurants, cafes and public toilets. They still faced the  fight for the right to vote, let alone being treated as equal citizens by the majority; a battle still to be fully won, something demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement.

By 1954, Linda Brown had passed the age of being able to attend Monroe Elementary. Ironically, Topeka’s junior high schools had been desegregated without any court action since 1941 and Topeka High had not been segregated since its opening in 1871. The Kansas Jim Crow laws only permitted segregation “below the high school level”.

Linda Brown and friends a decade on

Linda Brown is on the left in this photo of her and three other plaintiffs in her case, taken in 1964 on the 10th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education.

Other black Americans from the Civil Rights era became far better known than Linda Brown. The year after Brown v Board of Education, Rosa Parks refused to stand up for a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery Alabama and was arrested. Martin Luther King took up her cause and the Civil Rights Movement was on the road, shattering white America’s post-war calm and featuring such monumental events as the 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech, one of the most powerful orations in the English language.

But I hope it is never forgotten that Linda Brown, a little girl from Topeka Kansas, began it all. I find it sad that, unlike civil rights peers such as Rosa Parks, she does not even have her own page in Wikipedia and is mentioned only four times, almost in passing, in the exhaustive Wikipedia article on Brown v Board of Education. Her adult life was rarely in the public eye. She featured in news items on the 10th anniversary of her case, and in a 1985 television documentary. She was a talented pianist, I learned from the little published information about her life. She taught children to play piano at the Topeka church she attended. There has been no movie about her, no best-selling book, no television series. Perhaps with her death, her importance to the shaping of modern America — and because of that, the world — will be given the recognition it deserves.

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