A family member of Linda Brown said Tuesday that contributions Topeka civil rights leaders and other plaintiff families made in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case deserve recognition and shouldn't be overshadowed.
Cheryl Brown Henderson, Linda Brown's sister, shared those sentiments with The Topeka Capital-Journal two days after her sister's death Sunday in Topeka at age 75. Though reluctant at first, Brown became the face of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared separate public schools for white and black children are "inherently unequal."
"The Topeka case in Brown was the brainchild of McKinley Burnett who was president of the local NAACP at the time," Henderson said in a statement. "The organization recruited families to stand as plaintiffs resulting in a class of 13. Oliver Brown was among the 13 parents recruited. Brown v. Board was never centered around one individual as repeatedly erroneously reported. There were nearly three hundred plaintiffs on the roster in the lawsuit whose names were obscured by the legal abbreviation of et al."
Oliver Brown, Linda Brown's father, was the only adult male plaintiff in the case. He was designated lead plaintiff by U.S. Supreme Court justices when they combined similar desegregation cases from other states. The class action lawsuit was "developed and filed by the NAACP representing families from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.," Henderson said.
In a phone interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal on Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 76, a civil rights icon, acknowledged many other plaintiffs were part of the Brown v. Board case. However, he said, 9-year-old Linda Brown emerged as the "original face" of the historic decision that would become the unraveling of legal segregation.
"A child should lead them," Jackson said. "She is deep in our history."
Jackson said the actions taken by Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to resist segregation were "tests" of the Supreme Court decision 64 years ago that proclaimed public schools weren't providing access to the same education if white and black children were taught in separate schools.
"They (civil rights leaders) emerged on the premise of the '54 decision," Jackson said. "Rosa Parks told me she was testing the Linda Brown case. Everything else that happened since that time flowed from Topeka."
Victoria Lawton Benson, another Brown plaintiff, said she was "never bothered" by the national attention Linda Brown, her longtime friend, received in the years following the historic decision.
"She was courageous enough to go out and talk about it for the rest of us," Benson said. "She's the one who stepped up to the plate."
Benson said she wasn't sure why Oliver Brown was designated as the lead plaintiff in the desegregation case. She said it was perhaps because he had a union job at Santa Fe Railroad "that he wasn't afraid to lose" because of his involvement in the lawsuit.
Deborah Dandridge, field archivist and curator for the University of Kansas' Spencer Research Library, said Burnett went to the Topeka school board many times to call for desegregation of the city's schools in the early 1950s. She said when his efforts were to no avail, he and others had to search for families willing to be part of the class action lawsuit.
"It took a lot to convince people to do this," Dandridge said. "Some were more willing than others. All of them faced certain challenges."
The Rev. Ben Scott, president of the Topeka NAACP, agreed the other families in the case deserve recognition for their role as plaintiffs. He said when Linda Brown, who taught his children music, spoke about her experience with the case, she always gave her father credit for standing up when he was told his daughter couldn't attend an all-white school in their neighborhood.
"Most of the time she would reference her father," Scott said, "and how he took a stand. I think she had some pride that the Brown name was on the case. But I never heard her take credit for the success. But I also know she was grateful to be a part of it."
Henderson said memorial services for Linda Brown were pending.
Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or @AngelaDeines on Twitter.