The Supreme Court Ruling That Gives All of Us a Chance to Go to School Together

Three girls in front of a blackboard in a multiracial classroom.

Does the name Linda Brown mean anything to you?

It should.

She’s an important figure in American History.

And she became an important figure by the time she was 12 years old.

She’s not one of the girls in the picture above this story.

But if not for her, the picture above this story might never have been taken.

When Linda Brown was born on February 20, 1942, discrimination against African-Americans was still widespread in the United States – and often legal.

Linda was born and raised in Topeka, Kansas.

According to historical accounts, she grew up in a mostly white neighborhood and had white friends.

But Linda wasn’t white.

So when it came time for her to start school, she couldn’t go to the same school her white neighbors went to.

She had to go to a school for African-American kids like her – even though it was nowhere near where she lived.

“My father pondered, ‘Why?'” she said, years later, in a speech at Southern Illinois University.  “Why should my child walk four miles (to school) when there is a school only four blocks away?”

When it came to his children’s education, the Reverend Oliver Brown was not a man who took “no” for answer.

So when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) approached him to join a lawsuit to outlaw racially segregated schools, he said “yes.”

“He wondered, ‘Why should I take time to explain to my daughter that she can’t attend school with her neighborhood playmates because she is black,” Linda Brown said, looking back.

The lawsuit Rev. Brown joined would challenge an 1896 ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

That ruling said “separate but equal” was legal when it came to racial segregation.

However, in reality, separate was not equal in America in the first half of the 20th century.

And when it came to funding for education, schools for African-American kids almost always got the short end of the stick.

“(It) was never just about sitting next to white children,” Linda Brown’s younger sister Cheryl said in 2004, in a speech at the University of Michigan.  “It was about sharing the same resources they had access to.”

Those resources included money.

The whites-only schools generally got more funding.

That meant more money for books and equipment.

The end result:  a better education overall.

And a better education meant a better chance at getting into a good college – and getting a good job after graduation.

So as long as black children had less access to a good education, equality would not be possible.

“Education was the down payment on freedom,” Cheryl Brown said.  “Education is the down payment on opportunity.”

The Brown family’s case became known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

(The “v” stands for versus.)

In 1951 — when Linda was in 3rd grade — the NAACP appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

The Supreme Court said yes.

The case was then argued and re-argued.

Supporters of segregation said segregated schools simply prepared African-American children for what they would face as adults.

Opponents argued that segregated schools sent a message to African-American children that they were inferior – a message that’s wrong.

Finally, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court made its ruling – a ruling that was unanimous.

“We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” said Chief Justice Earl Warren.  “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.  Therefore, we hold that (African-American students) are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (of the United States Constitution).”

It was a slam-dunk.

“Separate but equal” was no longer okay.

African-American kids had to have the same opportunities as white kids to get a good education.

But the justices set no timetable for schools to be de-segregated.

And in some communities, it took decades.

In the late 1970’s, nearly 25 years after the Supreme Court ruling, Linda Brown re-filed her famous case, saying the Topeka schools were still segregated.

It wasn’t until 1998 that the courts ruled that Topeka’s schools were racially balanced.

Thanks to Linda Brown and her father, African-American students now have opportunities their ancestors only dreamed of.

That’s not to say that discrimination doesn’t exist anymore.

But thanks to Brown v. the Board of Education, every kid now has the right to a good education — regardless of the color of your skin.