On May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Court’s unanimous decision overturned provisions of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had allowed for “separate but equal” public facilities, including public schools in the United States. Declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the Brown v. Board decision helped break the back of state-sponsored segregation, and provided a spark to the American civil rights movement.
This unanimous decision handed down by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, ended federal tolerance of racial segregation. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Court had ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations on railroad cars conformed to the Fourteenth Amendment‘s guarantee of equal protection. That decision was used to justify segregating all public facilities, including schools. In addition, most school districts, ignoring Plessy’s “equal” requirement, neglected their black schools.
Linda Brown was born on February 20, 1942, in Topeka, Kansas, to Leola and Oliver Brown. Though she and her two younger sisters grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, Linda was forced to walk across railroad tracks and take a bus to grade school despite there being a school four blocks away from her home. This was due to the elementary schools in Topeka being racially segregated, with separate facilities for black and white children.
In 1950, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked a group of African-American parents that included Oliver Brown to attempt to enroll their children in all-white schools, with the expectation that they would be turned away. Oliver attempted to do so with Linda, who was in third grade at the time and barred from enrollment at Sumner Elementary. The strategy was for the civil rights group to file a lawsuit on behalf of the 13 families, who represented different states.
With Brown’s name happening to alphabetically top the list of plaintiffs, the case would come to be known as Brown v. Board of Education and be taken to the Supreme Court. The lead attorney working on behalf of the plaintiffs was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.