Linda Brown only wanted to go to the Sumner School. But she was black, and the Topeka, Kansas, elementary school four blocks from her home was entirely white.
“I didn’t comprehend color of skin,” she said later. “I only knew that I wanted to go to Sumner.”
Brown, a 9-year-old in search of a nearby place to learn, went on to become the central figure of Brown v. Board, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned racial segregation in American schools and helped launch a new phase of the civil rights movement. She died March 25 at 76, the Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel of Topeka told the Associated Press.
The case known as Brown v. Board was actually a collection of class-action suits that battled school segregation in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. All were sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and packaged together in a single case that advanced to the Supreme Court.
On May 17, 1954, the court unanimously ruled that racial segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine that had stood since the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson. “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect,” the court pronounced in its ruling.
The decision paved the way for a gradual and sometimes violent integration of schools and other public facilities across the country.
“I feel that after 30 years, looking back on Brown v. the Board of Education, it has made an impact in all facets of life for minorities throughout the land,” Brown said in a 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize,” a PBS documentary series on the civil rights movement. “I really think of it in terms of what it has done for our young people, in taking away that feeling of second-class citizenship. I think it has made the dreams, hopes and aspirations of our young people greater, today.”
At the time of the decision, Brown said she was just happy she could attend Sumner – a school that still tried to bar her admission on the day the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.
Brown was not truly the “Brown” of Brown v. Board. The case was filed by her father, the Rev. Oliver Brown, an assistant minister at Saint Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, who died in 1961.