“Linda Brown’s life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can have an incredible impact and that by serving our community we can truly change the world.”
— Jeff Colyer, Kansas governor
“I didn’t comprehend color of skin, I only knew that I wanted to go to Sumner.”
— Linda Brown
Oliver Brown was a welder, a father and a man of God. When he wasn’t working in the shops of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad, he was caring for his family, or preaching at St. Mark’s A.M.E. church, where he was associate pastor. Among his lifelong friends was Charles Scott, an attorney who represented the local Topeka chapter of the NAACP.
Scott was looking to line up plaintiffs for a lawsuit challenging segregation in the Topeka school system. He knew that Brown’s daughter, Linda, wanted to attend the elementary school that was just blocks from their home, but instead had to walk six blocks to get on a bus that took her to a segregated school instead. In the fall of 1951, Brown attempted to enroll Linda at the ‘white’s-only’ school, but her enrollment was denied. Oliver and his wife, Darlene, then became the first two plaintiffs in the suit against the Topeka school board.
Sixty years earlier, Homer Plessy, who was of mixed racial heritage having one African-American great-grandparent, had refused to leave a “whites-only” train car and was arrested, charged and convicted. He appealed and claimed that the “separate but equal” standard violated the constitution. By a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court denied his appeal. Justice Brown said that the issue was, “too clear for argument” and that if Plessy felt the law rendered him inferior, it was, “solely because he chooses to put that construction upon it.” Only Justice Harlan dissented.
By the time Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, reached the United States Supreme Court, 17 states expressly mandated school segregation. Only 16 (including Ohio) had laws forbidding the practice. Four others, including Kansas, allowed it at least in some circumstances. Brown’s case was combined with others coming from Virginia, Washington D.C., South Carolina and Delaware. The legal case was now being handled by the NAACP’s national counsel, Thurgood Marshall. The Eisenhower administration filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, and Attorney General James McGranery said that discrimination was ‘grist for the Communist propaganda mills.’
Although nearly all of the Justices personally opposed segregation, they were split on whether the Supreme Court had the authority to order the states to desegregate and/or the power to enforce the ruling. After the case was argued, and during the debate, Chief Justice Vinson died of a heart attack in 1953. The Court reheard the case, now under the direction of new Chief Justice Earl Warren. Warren held two opinions strongly: First, that school segregation needed to end, and second, that the decision needed to be unanimous in order to gain sufficient popular support. Following a reportedly fiery speech in chambers, Warren had eight Justices in his camp. The lone holdout was Justice Reed. Historians note that Reed was a member of an all-white club and lived in a neighborhood with racial deed restrictions, but also that Reed had authored the decision in Smith v. Allwright (banning racially separate primary elections) and voted in the majority in the case that banned racially segregated law schools. Reed eventually relented, and the case was decided 9-0 in favor of the students and their families.
That was not the end of the fight for Linda Brown. Twenty-five years after her Supreme Court victory, she was the named plaintiff in a new case, again titled Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, suing on behalf of her own children this time, and claiming that Topeka had failed to comply with court orders requiring desegregation. She won that case in 1989, and a court ordered final desegregation of the Topeka school district in 1993, more than a half century after her first attempt to enroll at Sumner Elementary.
Oliver Brown died of heat stroke in his early 40s in 1961, and Linda Brown, just nine years old when her case began, and twelve when the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, passed away Monday at the age of 75. The segregated school that she attended as a child was declared a national historic site by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and is now home to tours and field trips.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.