Linda Brown, who at the age of 9 became the cornerstone figure in the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down segregation in the nation’s schools, has died at age 76 in Kansas, according to published reports.
Topeka’s former Sumner School was all-white when Brown’s father, Oliver, tried to enroll the family. He became lead plaintiff in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
For much of the sixty years preceding the Brown case, race relations in the United States had been dominated by racial segregation. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment (“no State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws”).
The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 in which it was prohibited
Her sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, founding president of The Brown Foundation, confirmed the death to The Topeka Capital-Journal. She declined comment from the family.
Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis says Brown’s legacy is not only in Kansas but nationwide. He says the effect she had “on our society would be unbelievable and insurmountable.”
The Supreme Court eventually ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. It overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision that held that segregated public facilities were constitutional as long as black and white facilities were equal.
The ruling constitutionally sanctioned laws barring African Americans from sharing the same buses, schools and other public facilities as whites — known as “Jim Crow” laws— and established the separate but equal doctrine that would stand for the next six decades, according to History.com.
In his lawsuit, Brown claimed that schools for black children were not equal to the white schools, and that segregation violated the so-called equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which holds that no state can deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of law.
The case went before the U.S. District Court in Kansas, which agreed that public school segregation had a “detrimental effect upon the colored children” and contributed to “a sense of inferiority,” but still upheld the separate but equal doctrine.