The grade school that Linda Brown Thompson attended in Topeka, Kan., was, like hundreds of others in the 1950s — racially segregated.
While Linda’s parents were pleased with the quality of education she received, the school for blacks that she attended was 21 blocks from her home. Her father, Oliver Brown, found this objectionable. He sought to enroll his daughter at an all-white school, which was much closer. His request was denied.
So Oliver Brown joined with other parents to mount a challenge in the courts. On May 17, 1954, with Thurgood Marshall representing the parents and the children, the high court declared “separate but equal” public schools unconstitutional, based on the 14th Amendment.
The landmark case Brown v. Board of Education became the legal catalyst for the dismantling of America’s legal racial caste system. The civil rights movement would soon arise to attack “separate but equal” in other institutions. Linda Brown called her role in this chapter of U.S. history “an honor.”
Linda Brown Thompson died March 25 in Topeka at the age of 76. Her death is a bittersweet reminder of how far we have to go to overcome institutional racism. Racial segregation persists, both in education and society.
The percentage of K-12 public schools in the United States with students who are poor and mostly black or Hispanic is growing, according to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office. But these schools, compared to others, “offer disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled.”
A study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project reached similar conclusions. While the nation continues to diversify with more Latino students, more Asian students, and more students overall, segregation patterns are still entrenched. Some areas are now re-segregating.
Schools remain segregated in large part because neighborhoods do too. Many major metropolitan areas, including Chicago, New York, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Baltimore, have persistent racial segregation patterns that yield segregated school systems. Racial segregation breeds racial inequality.
The Brown decision sought to educate children through public schools, a goal that is now under a vicious assault. Public schools and teachers unions are regularly denigrated, and achievement gaps across racial lines remain a problem in need of bold leadership.
Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, is not it. DeVos has proposed shifting $1 billion in education funding to private, charter and magnet schools. Luckily, the U.S. Congress just refused to go along with this plan.
The passing of Linda Brown is a chance to re-engage and embrace the noble cause of equal public education. We owe that to all the schoolchildren of America.