Linda Brown wanted to go only to the Sumner School. But she was black, and the Topeka, Kan., elementary school four blocks from her home was segregated, open to only white students.
“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 who simply wanted to avoid a long walk and bus ride and join her white friends in class, went on to become the symbolic center of Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that bore her father’s name and helped overturn racial segregation in the United States.
Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka said Brown, who used the name Linda Brown Thompson, died Sunday at 75. Additional details were not immediately available. The Topeka Capital-Journal, which confirmed the death with her sister Cheryl Brown Henderson, reported that she was 76.
The most famous Supreme Court case in American history bore Brown Thompson’s last name almost by chance. Topeka, a city that was less than 10% black at the time of the case, had integrated high schools and had begun integrating its middle schools. Her father — the Rev. Oliver L. Brown, an assistant minister at St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church — was just one of 13 plaintiffs who sought to ensure the city fully integrated the rest of its schools.
He was recruited by the NAACP, which had organized four other class-action lawsuits challenging high school segregation in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. According to the Brown Foundation, which promotes the history of the case, Brown was named the lead plaintiff “as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster.”
Packaged together, the lawsuits were successfully argued by an NAACP legal team led by Thurgood Marshall, who later served as a Supreme Court justice. The court unanimously ruled on May 17, 1954, that school segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect,” the court said in its ruling, which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that had stood since the 1896 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. The decision paved the way for a gradual and sometimes violent integration of schools and other public facilities, although many schools in the South — and even in Brown Thompson’s hometown — were not fully integrated for years.
“I feel that after 30 years, looking back on Brown vs. the Board of Education, it has made an impact in all facets of life for minorities throughout the land,” Brown Thompson 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.”
At the time of the decision, Brown Thompson said she was just happy she could legally attend Sumner, a school that still tried to bar her admission on the day the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. She later attended an integrated middle school, where she was sometimes hounded by journalists who tracked her grades (she reportedly never earned “less than a B” on her year-end report card), and an integrated high school in Springfield, Mo.
It was only there, she told the New York Times as a senior in 1961, that she began to realize the significance of the court decision.
“Last year in American history class, we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Gee, some day I might be in history books!’ ”
Linda Carol Brown was born on Feb. 20, 1943, according to the funeral home. (Some sources say she was born in 1942.) Raised in Topeka, she said she grew up playing with children of all races and didn’t think twice about attending whites-only Sumner. The family received a registration form for the school in 1952, apparently by mistake. The school’s refusal to accept her led her father to meet with the NAACP.
He “felt that it was wrong for his child to have to go so far a distance to receive a quality education,” Brown Thompson said in “Eyes on the Prize.”
She moved to Springfield as a teenager and her father became pastor of a church in the city. Years later, she returned to Topeka and took on the civil rights mantle of her father, who died in 1961.
Brown Thompson was part of a group of Topeka parents who in 1979 joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to successfully argue for the reopening of the Brown case. The parents argued that because of housing patterns in Topeka, racially segregated schools remained in the city, in violation of the 1954 ruling.
“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation,” Brown Thompson told the Washington Post in 1994. “But the struggle has to continue.”
That year, the district adopted a desegregation plan that closed eight elementary schools and opened several new elementary and magnet schools.
A marriage to Charles D. Smith ended in divorce, and Brown later married Leonard Buckner. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Brown Thompson worked as a teacher with the Head Start early-childhood program and was a program associate at the Brown Foundation, according to the organization’s website.
She sometimes said she had little memory of the court case that changed her life, as well as the lives of millions of African Americans across the country. She told the New York Times in 1961 that she couldn’t remember whether she went to court at any point during the case, and that even in Topeka her peers were incredulous that she had played a significant role in history.
When photographers swarmed her classroom after the decision, on the first day of school in September 1954, she said her classmates thought it “was very funny” they were taking pictures of her. In fact, she said, “they didn’t believe me.”