Topeka — Fifty years after what some call the greatest court decision on human rights in U.S. history, people are still getting it wrong.
And as attention focuses on Topeka for Monday's opening of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Cheryl Brown Henderson and historians hope to set the record straight.
"None of what you all have been reporting to the public is true, and we need to stop it," Henderson said recently.
Henderson is the daughter of Oliver Brown -- the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit -- and she is president of The Brown Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides information and educational materials about the history of the case.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision that declared unconstitutional racial segregation in public schools. The ruling was a lethal blow to apartheid-like Jim Crow laws as the struggle by blacks for full civil rights gained momentum.
Kansas University professor Norman Yetman said the importance of the decision by the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren could not be overstated.
"It was a dramatic reversal of three and a half centuries of American history," said Yetman, who taught a course this semester on the Brown case and events leading to the decision.
But Henderson said the case had little to do with her family -- the Browns -- the often-told story about her older sister Linda's long bus ride to an all-black school or even education.
"Brown was about African-Americans as a community wanting to be enfranchised in this country," Henderson said.
Known as Brown
The Brown name became forever linked with the history of civil rights through a series of historical twists of fate.
In 1950, the NAACP decided to challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine in schools allowed under the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson when the court permitted racial segregation.
In summer of 1950, McKinley Burnett, president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP, started recruiting black parents to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Topeka school board challenging segregation.
The Rev. Oliver Brown, an assistant pastor at St. John's A.M.E. Church and welder for the Santa Fe railroad, signed up on behalf of his then-8-year-old daughter, Linda. Linda had to cross the railroad tracks and take a bus about a mile to all-black Monroe Elementary, though an all-white elementary school was just four blocks away from their home.
In 1951, the NAACP filed the lawsuit and Oliver Brown was listed at the top of the plaintiffs, probably because he was the only male.
As the Topeka case moved up the judicial ladder, the U.S. Supreme Court consolidated it with other appeals from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The Brown case was selected as the lead case, though the reason for that has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Some historians said the court picked a non-Southern case so to not inflame the South further at a time when racial tensions in the region already were at a breaking point.
But others say the Topeka case was chosen because at the lower court level, U.S. District Judge Walter Huxman, a former Kansas governor, allowed testimony into the record by Louisa Holt, an assistant professor of psychology at Kansas University in the early 1950s, and other sociologists on how segregation implied that blacks were inferior.
The lower court said it had to uphold segregation because of the Plessy decision. But the social science information was crucial to the U.S. Supreme Court reaching a decision.
Writing the Supreme Court's decision, Warren said: "The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs: 'Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact 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 [racially] integrated school system.'"
Yetman said many people had a simplistic view of the civil rights movement that has made the Browns icons. In reality, Yetman said, the Browns stood on the shoulders of generations of black people who struggled for equality, including the dozens of families who were plaintiffs in the other cases.
"This was the collective effort of hundreds of people including those who lost their lives, property, were run out of town and constantly intimidated and terrorized. The effort they made basically is unsung," he said.
Yetman said the plaintiffs in the Southern states "put their lives on the line."
He added, "I don't want to diminish what Oliver Brown did, but he didn't face the same kind of terrorism that many people who tried to fight for their basic rights endured."
Steve Adams, National Parks Service superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education site, said in travels to other civil rights battlegrounds there was some animosity that the Brown decision seemed to get all the attention.
"It's extremely important that when we tell the story, we tell the true story," he said.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said some of the misperceptions about the Brown decision stemmed from ambivalent feelings about it in Topeka.
"It is ironic that the Browns don't want attention now because in 1954, when the case was settled, they and other Topeka litigants received little media attention," said Beatty, who also taught a course focusing on the case.
When the Supreme Court decision was announced, Topeka papers published the news but ignored the local plaintiffs.
The Topeka State Journal on the day of the decision had a banner headline that read: "School Segregation Banned," but nowhere on the front page did it mention the title case was an appeal from Topeka.
"The newspapers here showed it as a Southern issue and a problem that the South needed to deal with, and it was good for America and that Kansas was a leader in civil rights," Beatty said.
The Topeka school superintendent at the time, Wendell Goodwin, was quoted as saying the Supreme Court decision would have no effect on Topeka schools because "segregation is already being terminated in an orderly manner."
Of course, segregation was a problem in Kansas, Beatty said. It took decades for the Topeka school district to desegregate. The case was reopened again in 1979 and wasn't settled until 1999 when the supervising court declared that the district had complied with the court's goals.
|Topeka -- The 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling will bring plenty of dignitaries to Topeka through Monday. Among those scheduled to visit:¢ President Bush is the key speaker at the grand opening of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, 1515 S.E. Monroe St. The event starts at 10:30 a.m. Monday.¢ U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., will attend a state commemoration proclamation at 8:30 a.m. Monday on the south steps of the Capitol.¢ The Rev. Jesse Jackson will speak at 11 a.m. Sunday at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, 610 S.E. Lime.|
Beatty said Topeka had been "very hot and cold about this case."
"On Monday, we are dedicating a national historic site at Monroe Elementary school, and at one point it was a week from being torn down," he said.
Unlike Yetman and Henderson, Beatty said he saw no problem with people focusing on the story of Linda Brown, as long as that leads a person to further study of the civil rights movement.
"You can't escape what Linda Brown symbolizes, and her story makes a good starting point," Beatty said, especially for youngsters who can relate to her age when the case was winding through the courts.
Yetman said another danger in focusing too much on the Brown decision was the tendency by some to say the case ended discrimination.
"Today we still have situations that are dramatically separate and unequal," he said.
The current struggle over school funding in Kansas -- where a judge has declared that Kansas unconstitutionally discriminates against poor students -- is an extension of the court's rulings in Brown, he said.
Linda Brown currently is a program associate for The Brown Foundation. She and Cheryl Brown Henderson go on speaking engagements across the country on the case, but they rarely give interviews.
Henderson's comments came during a surprise visit with media that were meeting at Monroe Elementary to be briefed on Monday's celebration.
Henderson urged people to read about earlier cases leading up to the Brown decision, such as lawsuits in Oklahoma and Texas that challenged segregation of graduate students at universities.
She said the Brown case was another milestone in the civil rights movement, but that her family's role was minimal.
"I don't enjoy it -- taking credit for something we never did," she said.
|1951The Rev. Oliver Brown filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education, seeking equal education for his daughter Linda. May 17, 1954, The Supreme Court ruled in the Brown case that a "separate but equal" education system is "inherently unequal."1955In the decision known as "Brown II," the Supreme Court ordered districts to desegregate with "all deliberate speed." Many Southern states continued to resist.1957National Guard troops escorted nine black students into their high school in Little Rock.1959Prince Edward County, Md., closed public schools to avoid implementing the Brown decision.1964Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in voting, public accommodations, schools and employment.1971The Supreme Court ruled that busing is an acceptable means of desegregating public schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.1979Black lawyers returned to court in Topeka seeking to speed desegregation of the school system.1988School integration reached an all-time high. Almost 45 percent of black students in the United States were enrolled in majority-white schools, according to the the Harvard Civil Rights Project.1991The Supreme Court allowed school districts to declare themselves integrated in Oklahoma City vs. Dowell. The national resegregation trend picked up momentum.1994A federal judge ordered the Topeka school district to "eliminate the vestiges" of segregation. The subsequent remedy included closure of 13 predominantly black schools and the opening of two magnet schools.2003The Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in higher-education admissions in Grutter vs. Bollinger but also ruled against fixed racial quotas.|