Oliver L. Brown, Pioneer

If you are making the haj from the Mormon heartland to Nauvoo on I-70, you will drive through downtown Topeka, Kansas. There are two good reasons to take exit 361B. First, you can go visit the state capitol building and see my son’s fifth grade art project, assuming that the objet d’art is still on display. The second reason is to visit Sumner elementary school.

When Linda Brown was a little girl, she was unable to attend Sumner, which was her neighborhood school. Instead, she had to walk seven blocks from her home through the Topeka rail yards in order to catch a bus to Monroe school. When school began in the Fall of 1951 Linda’s father, Oliver L. Brown, decided to enroll his daughter at Sumner. It was just six blocks from the Brown’s home, and all of Linda’s friends attended there. Here is how Linda describes what happened next:

… well. like I say we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out … to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn’t understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.

With planning and encouragement from the local chapter of the NAACP, Brown joined with thirteen other parents and brought suit against the Topeka Board of Education. The District Court ruled against the plaintiffs, holding that the Topeka schools, though segregated by race, were substantially equal. The ruling was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall argued on the plaintiff’s behalf. On May 17, 1954, the court ruled unanimously that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Brown v. Board of Education initiated reform in the United States and became the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. It reaffirmed our commitment to justice and equality before the law.

I have no legal training and therefore no standing to evaluate legal decisions, but I have heard it argued that this case was a well-planned, brilliantly executed attack that was intended to scuttle the structure of law supporting the practice of racial segregation. Can any of you lawyers who actually know what you are talking about address this question? It is interesting that Marshall and the NAACP chose this particular case to contest. The high school in Topeka had been integrated since the 1880s, and the contemporaneous accounts report that integration went smoothly and that most of the locals were privately relieved when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling. Laws should more or less embody the values of the people who make them, but in this case, the law appears to have been a trailing indicator, at least in Topeka. The court ruling simply ratified and finalized a gradual process that had been underway for years already.

Oliver Brown died at age 42, just seven years after the Supreme Court ruling that bears his name. He grew up in Topeka, and attended the public schools and also Washburn University. He worked for 15 years as a welder in the Santa Fe rail yard his daughters crossed on their way to the bus stop. Before his death, he became a minister in a congregation of the AME church. Thurgood Marshall became a Supreme Court justice. The Topeka Board of Education now meets in the McKinley Burnett administration building. Burnett was the president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP which helped Brown and others bring suit, and his name on the building is a tribute not only to him, but to the citizens he served.

As we observe President’s Day this weekend in the United States, let us celebrate this wonderful country, and honor our founders who set forth the ideal of justice under law. Let us remember also the foot soldiers whose actions and courage give life to that ideal. Let us remember Oliver Leon Brown, and honor that moment when he paused in front of Sumner elementary school, squared his shoulders, took his daughter’s hand, and walked up the steps and through the door.


  1. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    How clearly you illustrated that story! Thank you for sharing it. I have one more person to add to my student’s “We Are Valiant” sign.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this interesting background to the famous decision. That really puts some flesh on the bones. (I’m afraid my law school study of this case was relatively superficial, so I can’t answer your question about the detailed background.)

  3. Amen!

  4. My law school study of this case was superficial, as well. However, as an undergraduate in political science, we went into it a bit. The main thing I remember is that the Chief Justice Warren worked really hard to get a unanimous opinion. He felt that it would be more powerful that way. (Unanimous in that everyone signs onto the same opinion, not just the same result.) The opinion was deliberately kept short and understandable so that the average person could read it, and it was printed in its entirety in the newspapers.

  5. Keri, how often does the Court reach a unanimous opinion? My impression is that 9-0 is rare. Is that correct?

  6. From what I understand (and I welcome the input of others who are better informed on this topic), unanimous opinions are fairly common for routine or non-controversial cases. However, it’s quite rare for a controversial or landmark case to be unanimous. What is even more spectacular about Brown is that not only was it unanimous in the result, but the actual opinion was unanimous, with no separate concurring opinions.

  7. I also believe it is fair to say that unanimous opinions in landmark cases are rare. It was especially important in Brown I (There was a later Brown case referred to as Brown II) because Brown I reversed the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (decided 8-1) which upheld the “seperate but equal” doctrine, allowing states to continue the Jim Crow laws which mandated seperate facilities for black citizens.

    Brown I was actually a consolidation of several cases involving the same issue. The genius of the opinion was its recognition of the fact (it seems obvious now but it was against the weight of precedent then) that “seperate but equal” contains an inherent contradiction. The District Court in the Brown case (the first court to hear the case) actually ruled that the black school at issue in the case was substantially equal in all factual particulars, which was not true of the black schools in the other cases consolidated later at the Supreme Court level. The Supreme Court had the vision to recognize that this fact was not important, and ruled that mandated separation was unacceptable under the Fourteenth Amendment regardless of factual equality in facilities. This was truly a great moment in legal history, despite the fact that much work and additional legal battles were necessary to complete the desegregation of public schools. Brown I was the turn of the tide in the courtrooms of the country against Plessy and its progeny.

    I do have to quibble a little with singling out Oliver Brown for commendation. He was chosen as the first named plaintiff principally because he was a man, rather than a woman as were most of the other plaintiffs, with an intact family, rather than being a single parent. These factors were considered a PR plus, and so he was chosen to be the first named on that basis. The other plaintiffs were equally courageous and all deserve commendation no less than Rosa Parks and others who risked much in the fight for civil rights in America.

  8. In late 2003, NPR did a series of in depth reports on the Brown v. Board of Education decision, focusing on Thurgood Marshall, and his role in arguing the case before the Supreme Court. The link is http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1535826.

    If I recall correctly, the plaintiff’s attorneys worked long and hard specifically with the hopes of getting a unanimous decision. They felt that anything less would not carry the moral authority needed to truly end segregation. I also recall that the choice of using a case from Kansas as the lead case was also felt to be more likely to get the desired outcome than a case from the highly segregated south.

    Thanks for this thread. It’s a reminder of not only how far we have come, but that all the work of obtaining the promise of 2 NE 26:33 where “all are equal”, both male and female, black and white, bond and free is not yet behind us.