Topeka Civil rights leaders and Kansas state officials on Thursday officially dedicated a new mural in the Kansas Statehouse commemorating the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the 1954 case that overturned racial segregation in public schools.
The mural, which depicts the racial tensions that existed in the United States at the time of the decision, is displayed outside a room that once housed the Kansas Supreme Court, where numerous other challenges to segregated schools were heard and rejected between 1881 and 1949.
Kevin Myles, a regional director for the NAACP, and a former president of that group's Kansas chapter, spoke at the unveiling ceremony, saying the mural should both inspire and challenge those who look at it today.
He said the United States today finds itself "in a moment of gridlock" on many issues, some of which are just as divisive as the issue of racial integration was in the 1950s.
"But that's OK," he said. "When we look at this mural, what I want you to be challenged by is the fact that we have done this before. We as a nation have been at a place where there were people of clear minds on different sides of a very difficult issue. And the fact that everyone couldn't necessarily agree on how to move forward didn't mean that we didn't have the capacity to move forward."
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, the first black African-American judge to serve on the federal bench in Kansas, noted that Thursday was not only the 64th anniversary of the Brown decision, but also that 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 14th amendment, which was the basis of the decision because it requires states to guarantee equal protection of the laws to all of their citizens.
When the 14th amendment was being ratified in 1868, she said, there was considerable debate at the time about whether it would mean black children had a right to public education, or whether it would give them the right to go to school "elbow-to-elbow with white children."
"And it took the Supreme Court 88 years to answer that question finally and definitively in the Brown v. Board decision, when it said separate but equal education is not possible," she said.
Because of its name, the people most often associated with the case is the late Rev. Oliver Brown and his daughter, Linda Brown, who was forced to attend an all-black school in east Topeka, even though the family lived closer to a school that was reserved for whites.
But Cheryl Brown Henderson, Linda Brown's younger sister and founder of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, reminded the audience that there were numerous Topeka families, and numerous black lawyers, who took part in the lawsuit. And by the time it reached the Supreme Court, it was consolidated with four other similar lawsuits from Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and the District of Columbia.
Michael Young, the artist who created the mural, grew up in Lansing and went to school in Leavenworth in the years following the decision. He said he experienced those years in much the same way as many people in Kansas did at the time.
"I just remember there were two African-Americans in my class, a boy and a girl, and I never really thought anything about it, I think because of the way I was raised by our parents," he said during an interview before the ceremony. "And we lived in Lansing. We didn’t have any African-Americans living in Lansing."
In 1973, Young said, he competed in the 1970s for a commission to paint some of the murals now located on the second floor rotunda of the building, but he wasn't selected for that project.
"I was only 21, so I really wasn't ready," he said. "I even lied on my resume — exaggerated, rather."
But when the opportunity came up 45 years later to create a mural in honor of the Brown decision, Young said he knew it was his time.
Young said he considered several designs before choosing one that depicts both the bitter division that existed over segregation at the time, and the results of the racial integration that ensued.
"It has the drama of the protesters on the left, and then on the right, I wanted that to be more of the peaceful protesters after 1954," he said. "They're graduating from school and moving on to be professionals, with a school teacher reading to a group of integrated students in the foreground."
Also noticeable about the mural is that protesters on both sides are seen carrying American flags.
"Both sides carried the American flag," he said. "Sometimes the other side had the Dixie flag too. But it was a fact."