It has been 60 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was handed down.
The decision – which struck down an earlier court decision that upheld the practice of “separate but equal” – offered hope and opened doors.
“The strategy of the lawyers and NAACP was to eliminate and break the back of Jim Crow,” said Deborah Dandridge, archivist for the University of Kansas’ African-American Collections in Lawrence. “Jim Crow” was the collective name given to segregation laws.
“Once the separate-but-equal issue was challenged in public schools, all the rest fell away,” Dandridge said. “It broke the back of Jim Crow.”
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First Lady Michelle Obama will speak Friday in Topeka to commemorate the decision’s anniversary, which was handed down May 17, 1954. Obama will speak at 6 p.m. to graduating seniors in the Topeka school district at the Kansas Expocentre. The event is not open to the public but will be livestreamed at www.ustream.tv/channel/high-school-commencement.
In the late 1940s, African-American parents – led by members of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP – began challenging segregation. It would take until 1954 to see results.
“What Brown vs. Board did was make it clear that that kind of discrimination we were practicing was wrong,” said Mark McCormick, director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.
“ … But to think of it as strictly a black movement is a disservice. A lot came out of the Brown v. Board decision. Our schools are still pretty separate and unequal but what it did do was strike down the notion to discriminate.”
Beginning in the 1870s through 1965, Jim Crow laws made it legal to segregate African-Americans in public places such as restaurants, theaters, train cars and later buses – and in private businesses, such as housing and banking practices.
They were shaped by another landmark Supreme Court case in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld state laws on racial segregation using the phrase “separate but equal.”
Kansas in 1954
In the 1950s, drugstore lunch counters and restaurants in Kansas might serve black customers, but only if they didn’t sit down.
“In terms of segregation, Wichita was extremely specific to African-Americans,” said Gretchen Eick, a local historian and author of “Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-72.” “For instance, the public pools did not allow African-Americans to swim but other races could swim. It was a nasty kind of segregation.
“There were no hotels here that African-Americans could stay in unless they were a black-owned business.”
Wichita was the first city in the nation to have a successful sit-in. Late in the summer of 1958, 10 members of the youth chapter of the NAACP staged a sit-in at the lunch counter at the Dockum Drugs Store, on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway.
Their nonviolent effort resulted in Dockum and eventually other Rexall stores across the state providing seated service for blacks.
Topeka court case
From 1948 to 1950, McKinley Burnett, the Topeka NAACP chapter president, went to countless meetings trying to persuade the Topeka Board of Education to integrate its schools. He was unsuccessful. At the time, Kansas law permitted segregated elementary schools in cities of at least 15,000 or more.
So, McKinley – along with chapter secretary Lucinda Todd and lawyers Charles Scott Sr., John Scott and Charles Bledsoe – developed a strategy for a court case. Their plan was to enlist the support of fellow NAACP members and friends as plaintiffs in a class-action suit.
Todd was the first to volunteer on behalf of her daughter. Soon, 12 other parents were recruited. At the same time, similar court cases were being developed in Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and Washington, D.C.
The all-black Monroe School was 20 blocks from the Oliver Brown family home, according to Cheryl Brown Henderson in an article in The Eagle in 2000. Henderson is the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, for whom the case was named. A white school was much closer.
There were four elementary schools in Topeka designated for African-Americans – Washington, Monroe, Buchanan and McKinley – and 18 schools for white children.
Oliver Brown was selected to serve as the lead plaintiff because he was the only man on the roster of plaintiffs, Henderson said in the 2000 article. The suit was filed in 1951.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, it was combined with the other NAACP cases under the heading of Oliver L. Brown et. al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka et. al.
Thurgood Marshall served as the chief counsel for the NAACP. He later was appointed the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
So how effective was Brown v. Board of Education?
“Our schools are still very much segregated, because what people did is they left the cities and moved to the suburbs,” McCormick said. “You’ve got schools like Maize, Goddard, Andover and Derby that are overwhelmingly white, and urban centers that have fewer white students. The plan to integrate schools fell short.”
But in many ways, the court case that tried to integrate the nation’s schools marked the front line of the civil rights movement, KU’s Dandridge said.
“What it revealed is that the idea of race is so embedded in society that it becomes institutionalized,” Dandridge said. “The achievement of Brown is that the promise is ongoing.”