Originally created 05/16/04

Brown case paved way for progress



May 17, 1954, began as any other Monday for 11-year-old Claude Emerson. But it would bring a sit-down with his mother, Marguerite, and younger brother, George.

When his mother asked them to gather at the table, the youngsters knew it was serious business.

"Guess what?" his mother began. "It's over with. The younger kids can now go to Lowman Hill."

His mother told her children that the U.S. Supreme Court had finally made a decision on the Brown v. Board of Education case and that black children in Topeka could now attend the white elementary schools they walked past every day on their way to the city's four black schools.

Three years earlier, Mr. Emerson's mother had called her children to the table for another sit-down. She had decided to add the family to the list of plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Topeka board of education to desegregate the city's elementary schools.

As the case advanced from U.S. District Court to the nation's highest court, folks in Topeka went on with their lives.

The headlines on the day of the Supreme Court decision were large, but the reports seemed to downplay the effect the ruling would have on Topeka and herald the actions the Topeka school board had taken to integrate schools.

The Supreme Court ruling eventually would end state-sanctioned school segregation and lay the foundation for the civil rights movement. But it would take years for the Brown v. Board decision to be implemented in Topeka, and with the 50th anniversary of the ruling, the legacy of the case continues to be debated.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1950, McKinley Burnett, the president of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP, began recruiting black parents to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the school board, according to Topeka Daily Capital records.

Mr. Burnett joined forces with attorneys Charles Scott, Elisha Scott, John Scott and Charles Bledsoe to try to persuade black parents to sign on as plaintiffs. The parents were hesitant. They didn't know whether associating themselves with the lawsuit would mean losing their jobs or other types of harassment.

Lucinda Todd, who came to Topeka in 1950 to begin a teaching career, agreed to become a plaintiff on behalf of her young daughter, Nancy.

Following her lead, 12 other parents, acting on behalf of their 20 children, added their names to the petition.

Among the plaintiffs was the Rev. Oliver Brown, the assistant pastor at St. John's AME Church and a welder at Santa Fe Railroad, acting on behalf of his 8-year-old daughter, Linda, a pupil at Monroe Elementary.

In February 1951, the Topeka NAACP filed the lawsuit on behalf of the parents and their children. Oliver Brown's name was listed at the top of the petition, most likely because he was the only male plaintiff.

The case quickly became known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION made its debut June 25, 1951, in a half-filled courtroom at the U.S. District Court, at Fifth and South Kansas Avenue.

A year earlier, Ms. Todd, as secretary of the NAACP chapter, sent a letter to Walter White, the executive secretary of the national NAACP office, informing him of the Topeka lawsuit. She asked whether the national office would support the case.

On Sept. 13, 1950, Mr. White responded to Ms. Todd, saying that the national office would send its attorneys to argue Brown v. Board of Education. In June 1951, NAACP attorneys Robert Carter and Jack Greenberg came to Topeka to appear before the three-judge panel.

Louisa Holt, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, testified that the legalization of segregation "is inevitably interpreted both by white people and by Negroes as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group."

The NAACP lost the case.

The U.S. District Court judges found that Topeka's segregated schools were comparable in quality and that the constitutional rights of black children weren't being violated.

The federal district court ruling might have been valid, based on recollections of those who attended Topeka's black schools.

"The education I got was excellent," said Jack Alexander, 73, of Topeka, a former city water commissioner.

Black teachers devoted their lives to their classrooms and pupils, he said, probably because they were restricted from marrying or being promoted up the ranks of the educational system.

The District Court ruling, however, gave some weight to Dr. Holt's point about the psychological effects of segregation, which would prove helpful when the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case took on new life when the Supreme Court decided to reschedule its hearing from October to December 1952 and combine it with other appeals involving inferior conditions at black schools in Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia.

The combined cases were heard under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. Historians speculate that the Supreme Court picked the title to distance the case from the South, where racism thrived and tempers flared at the mention of desegregation.

IN EARLY 1953, the Supreme Court justices grappled with Brown v. Board of Education and decided that one issue hadn't been thoroughly discussed: When Congress gave the OK to the 14th Amendment, did it mean for the amendment to abolish segregation in public schools?

The justices ordered the attorneys to reargue the case, with a hearing date set for December.

The Supreme Court considered Brown v. Board of Education for more than five months. Behind the scenes, it was Judge Earl Warren, a former California governor, who worked to get the votes to render a unanimous decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

Shortly before 1 p.m. May 17, the justices assembled and Judge Warren delivered the ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case:

"Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal education opportunities? We believe that it does."

REACTION TO THE BROWN V. Board of Education decision was mixed. Segregationists were filled with anger, while others said the decision aligned the nation's actions with its rhetoric.

In May 1955, the Supreme Court urged the nation's school boards to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."

The next year, the Topeka school board approved a plan to remove "all vestiges of racial privilege" by 1961 and to adopt a policy that stated race and religion wouldn't be considered when teachers were hired.

Brown v. Board of Education is credited with creating the conditions that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other public facilities; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed all U.S. citizens the right to vote; and the education amendments in 1972 that included Title IX, which made it illegal to exclude anyone based on sex from participating in educational programs or activities receiving federal money.