Forty-seven years later, Linda Brown Thompson still remembers the long, cold walk to school and the “tears freezing on my face.”
It was that long walk that helped change the nation’s school systems forever. But the then-third grader in Topeka, Kan., didn’t realize the far-reaching effects her experience would have.Famous for her role in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. the Board of Education, Brown and her sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, spoke Thursday at a conference on urban education at the USF Embassy Suites.
The case outlawed school segregation, saying it violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
But Thompson does not like to give herself a lot of credit for the case. She was one of thousands of black children who had to walk to schools or bus stops that were far from their homes when white schools were located just blocks away.
Her father, Oliver, was one of 13 families, and the only man who participated in the class-action lawsuit.
“Little did he know, when he stepped off the witness stand, he stepped into the pages of history,” she said.
Almost a half-century later, Thompson said while there has been change, segregation still exists in the nation’s schools.Thompson said she never benefited directly from the decision.
“Sometimes I wonder if we did the right thing by bringing this case to court,” she said. “So much of the ruling remains unfulfilled.”
Thompson said some schools have minority populations as high as 90 percent. She attributed the rates to such factors as low-income housing.
“Now it has become a matter of economic segregation,” she said.
Thompson’s sister said the United States has had many internal struggles, especially slavery and the civil rights movement. “Our hands are not entirely clean in this country,” Henderson said.During her remarks, Henderson addressed the progress the case has allowed, as well as the improvements that must be made in the education system.
Henderson said there are four distinct reasons why the case is significant.
“It was the beginning of the end of segregation sanctioned by law,” Thompson said. “It overturned laws in 21 states that permitted or required segregation. It overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.”
Thompson called the last reason “critical.”
“It defended the sovereign power of people not to be restricted by state and local government,” she said.
But with the positives came negatives. Thompson rattled off a list of the “legacies of Brown.”
School closings, white flight, barriers creating school boundaries, low income housing, reverse discrimination and magnet schools are reasons Thomson attributed to modern-day school segregation.
Despite the hardships the public education system faces, education students, such as Kathanell Dixon, a senior majoring in special education, still believe there is hope for students.
“I’m more encouraged to be a special education educator now more than ever,” she said.
Dixon said the sisters’ story reaffirmed her belief that all children can learn.
“Their struggles haven’t been in vain,” she said. “(It’s) motivating to know it did not stop there – that it’s still going on.”
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