This week saw the passing of Linda Brown, who as a young girl was at the center of one of the most important Supreme Court cases in our history, Brown vs. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and I could not call myself Law-Talkin’ Guy if I did not take a few minutes to honor her and the case bearing her family’s name. While studying case-law, trying to understand precedent and apply holdings, it can be easy to forget that important cases usually start with real people trying to live their lives and suddenly involved in extraordinary circumstances. Linda Brown was just a child when her father, Oliver, tried to enroll her in the “white” school just blocks from her home, while the Board of Education in Topeka, KS, consistent with state law, required her to attend the segregated school over a mile away. Oliver and several other African-American families were following an NAACP strategy of trying to enroll their school-age children in the nearest neighborhood school, and once denied admittance and directed to segregated schools, filing lawsuits alleging violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because segregated public schools by definition cannot be made equal.
The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision, explicitly rejecting the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been law since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Brown is a brief decision, relatively speaking, and I urge you to at least read the full opinion. Chief Justice Warren stated that it was necessary to look not merely at the “tangible” factors in education, such as facilities and curricula, but also at the “effect of segregation on public education.” Brown, 492. Drawing on factors from earlier education cases, the Court was direct on the effects of segregation:
[For children], [t]o separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.” Brown, at 494.
In other words, a lower court had found that segregation negatively impacts the segregated children, yet still upheld the law. The Supreme Court is far from perfect, but sometimes the Court does speak with one voice and moral clarity:
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Brown, at 495.
Given the state of racism in America, I hope that everyone takes a few minutes, reads Brown, and consider what its principles stand for beyond education. I am sure I can be better than I am. Finally, remember that ordinary people, our friends and neighbors, are often at the heart of these decisions. Linda Brown did not choose her circumstances, but she did all that can be asked of anyone thrust into the spotlight of destiny: she walked forward, head high, and lived an honorable life, beloved by friends and family and proud of the legacy of her and her father.