Linda Brown’s death is a reminder of how recent our past was
Linda Brown Thompson was 76 years old when she died on March 25, but many best know her as the nine-year-old girl who caused desegregation across America through the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1951, her father, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll her at Sumner Elementary School near their Topeka, Kansas, home. When the school denied her enrollment because of the color of her skin, her father sued the Topeka Board of Education in seek of equality.
Although she was black, Thompson lived in an integrated neighborhood where she grew up playing with her white friends. She would watch as they walked seven blocks to Sumner, while she walked six blocks in the other direction before catching a bus and walking another mile to reach the black school she attended.
After the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, which allowed for racial segregation under the guise of separate but equal, education in the South was strictly separate but clearly unequal.
School systems invested in education for whites while neglecting resources and attention for black schools. While white students spent their days in clean, well-kept institutions with new books and equipment, black students endured rundown, overcrowded schools stocked with hand-me-down books in poor condition.
Thompson recalls in an interview in a televised documentary the moment that would drive her father to change history:
“And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal, and they left me out to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand, and we walked home from the school, and I just couldn’t understand what was happening, you know, because I was so sure that I was going to get to go to school with Mona, Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.”
She was not the first black child denied enrollment at an all-white elementary school. Four other black families across America had also gone to court to sue the education system for turning away their children. Those cases included: Bolling v. Sharpe in D.C.; Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina; Gebhart v. Belton in Delaware; and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in Virginia.
With the help of 12 other families in their neighborhood and local NAACP attorney Charles Scott, Brown filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court.
In 1952, the Oliver L. Brown et. al v. Board of Education of Topeka case was appealed to the Supreme Court. With Oliver Brown being the lead plaintiff, the court combined the five cases from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., into a single case, which became known as Brown v. Board of Education.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was decided on May 17, 1954, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling that segregated public schools violated the 14th Amendment.
Because of her father’s demand for equal education for his child, Thompson changed history the day she first walked the hallways of Sumner Elementary, striking down the notion of separate but equal and making it possible for every child to attend whichever school they wanted, regardless of their skin color.
America will never learn from its mistakes if we continue to ignore the truth about our history. Instead, we should recognize how the stories of discrimination, white supremacy and oppression are still prevalent today despite the boundaries we have overcome.
By honoring and learning from those who have paved the path for progress, we can create a future where racism and bigotry are no more.
Opinion assistant editor Bethel Biru is a broadcast journalism senior and can be reached at [email protected]