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Obituary: Linda, of Brown v. Board of Ed.

The Associated Press reports that Linda Brown died Sunday, March 25. She was one of a group of black children whose case in the US Supreme Court, known as Brown v Board of Education, helped to stop the practice of segregation in our public schools. She was 75, and the plaintiff in the case was actually her father, Oliver Brown. But it was her desire to attend an all-white school in Topeka, Kansas, that led to the case, argued by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice.

Not that she was particularly unhappy with the quality of the all-black school she was forced to attend, but she just had to walk too far and take a bus to get there. The all-white school was much closer to her home, and she has told stories of tears freezing up on her cheeks in the cold Kansas winters because of the length of her trip to her all-black school in the 1950s.

The funeral home handling the arrangements, Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka, did not immediately confirm the cause of her death.

Brown v Board of Education was argued before the Supreme Court on December 8, 1952, and reargued on December 7, 1953. The unanimous decision was handed down on May 17, 1954.

For many years, cases had been litigated over whether “separate but equal” facilities for African-Americans were truly equal. In a number of cases, including a lawsuit against the University of Maryland School of Law, states had been forced to admit African-Americans into colleges and graduate schools. But in the early 1950s, cases from Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia challenged the legality of requiring segregated public schools. The Supreme Court heard these cases together as Brown v Board of Education.

Mr Marshall, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, argued that segregated schools could never be equal and that such schools violated the Equal Protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment.

The constitutional question the Court had to consider was this: Does the segregation of children on the basis of race in public schools violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment? They unanimously said yes and forever changed segregation in the US.

Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court. He began by saying that the intent of the authors of the 14th Amendment could not be determined, especially when looking at public education. There were very few public schools of any kind in 1868. Therefore, Justice Warren determined, public education has to be considered in today’s terms. That is the only way a question about equal protection could be answered honestly.

Justice Warren went on to apply a decision from a case in the state of Kansas itself. In that case the state court decided that segregated schools create a feeling of inferiority in African-American children. The Kansas judge used a psychological study that found that “segregation of white and colored children [hurts] the colored children. … [It] deprives them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.”

The court agreed with this statement, concluding that “[a]ny language in Plessy v Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected. … In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal … [and thus the plaintiffs had been] deprived of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

By overturning Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court raised the prominence of public education to the level of being the driving force behind removing state-supported segregation in other areas as well.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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