In September 1950, Oliver Brown walked his young daughter to her neighborhood school in Topeka, Kansas. When he tried to enroll her in the all-white Sumner School, however, she was denied a spot because she was black. The rejection set in motion one of the most famous court cases in United States History, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The 1954 Supreme Court decision that followed struck down the half-century old “separate-but-equal” standard, ushering in an era of school de-segregation. On Sunday, Linda Brown, the little girl at the center of that monumental ruling, died in Topeka at the age of 75, Neil Genzlinger at The New York Times reports.
Topeka, the state capital, had a population around 80,000 in the early 1950s, according to Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's exhibition on Brown v. Board. Some 80 percent of the population was black, and though transportation was integrated on buses and railroads, most public spaces, such as hotels and restaurants, remained segregated.
Oliver Brown and other members of Topeka’s black community were fed up. “My father was like a lot of other black parents here in Topeka at that time,” Brown explained in the 1985 documentary Eyes on the Prize reports CNN. “They were concerned not about the quality of education that their children were receiving, they were concerned about the amount — or distance, that the child had to go to receive an education.”
By being denied entrance to her local public elementary school, which was just seven blocks away from her home, Linda was forced to walk through a dangerous area to get to a bus stop where "many time she had to wait through the cold, the rain and the snow" in order to attend a different school 21 blocks away, as her father testified later.
The Browns became one of 13 Topeka families who were cherrypicked by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored to serve as potential test cases to end legalized racial discrimination policies in public schools. Similar actions were taking place in communities across the nation. As Genzlinger reports, the NAACP's instructions to each of the families were as following: “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.”
According to History.com, after his daughter was denied admission to Sumner, Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Topeka school board. That case made its way through the courts, along with other test cases. Finally, in 1952, Brown’s case and four other cases from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., were merged into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which was heard by the Supreme Court. (Previously, lower courts had ruled in favor of the school boards, in keeping with the “separate-but-equal” ruling of the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Feguson, which legitimized Jim Crow segregation.)
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1954, the case legally ending the "separate-but-equal" era of segregation. But the reality was much different for people on the ground. Across the country, school boards and states tried various ploys to evade de-segregation orders, and some areas simply ignored the mandate. That led to some of the most famous incidents of the Civil Rights era, including the standoff at Little Rock Central High in Arkansas, when a group of black high school students, later dubbed the “Little Rock Nine,” were prevented from entering the building by the National Guard, which Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in defiance of the Supreme Court's ruling. Later, federal troops sent by President Eisenhower escorted the children into the school.
As late as 1963, Alabama governor George Wallace and state troops physically blocked the doorway of the registration hall at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from enrolling. They too had to step aside when federal National Guard troops were deployed.
Harry R. Rubenstein, curator of political history at the National Museum of American History, says the U.S. was a different place before Brown. "It's difficult for people to understand what it meant to live in a society with legalized segregation," he says. "The full weight of the state was there to enforce segregation. For the Civil Rights movement one of the major issues was that legal impediment."
It's important to understand that Brown wasn't just the romantic story of one Topeka family standing up to injustice. As Rubenstein explains, a group of legal scholars had been working toward creating the perfect test case since the 1930s. The movement was led by the NAACP's legal wing and members of the Howard University law school. "Brown was the effort of group of lawyers to overturn legal segregation as way of cracking segregation in other public spheres," he says. "They asked, 'How do you attack this legal system?' One way was to go after the most vulnerable area, which was the debate over schools because it was so obvious that separate-but-equal wasn’t happening. This was the crack that allowed them to attack the entire world of legal segregation."
Linda Brown never got a chance to attend Sumner since her family moved away from the neighborhood before the de-segregation ruling. But Vanessa Romo at NPR reports that in 1979 she served as a plaintiff in a revival of the original case, which sued the school district for not following through with its de-segregation commitment.
Brown grew up to become an educational consultant and a public speaker. She was also a regular volunteer at her church, writes Genzlinger in her Times' obituary, and the mother of two children who, thanks in part to her family's activism, attended de-segregated public schools. Though Linda always credited her father for pushing forward with the case, she later told NPR in an interview that she was proud of the role she played in the historic ruling.
Editor's note, March 27, 2018: This piece has been updated to reflect the New York Times' reporting that Brown was 75 years old, not 76 years old, when she died. According to the funeral home, she was born on February 20, 1943. Other sources list her birthdate as February 20, 1942.