Remembering Linda Brown Thompson

Today we honor the legacy of Linda Brown Thompson, a woman who was a teacher, Civil Rights activist, and the 12-year-old girl at the center of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. In the 1970s, she spoke out saying she felt exploited by the media, that she was not a lofty historical figure but a human being. She wanted to emphasize that anyone could make change in his or her community. Although she is remembered as an exceptionally brave 12-year-old who grew into a woman passionate for equal opportunities in education, her legacy is a reminder that we all have the opportunity to make a difference in our communities.

Still, there is an important element in the origin of this famous court case that is often overlooked. In the PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize, interviewers asked Linda to describe her father (Oliver Brown) and what he wanted to achieve in this lawsuit. She replied:

“My father was like a lot of other black parents here in Topeka at that time. They were concerned not about the quality of education that their children were receiving, they were concerned about the amount – or distance, that the child had to go to receive an education. Uh, my father believed very much in right, and he felt that it was wrong for black people to have to accept second-class citizenship, and that meant being segregated in their schools, when in fact, there were schools right in their neighborhoods that they could attend, and they had to go clear across town to attend an all-black school. And this is one of the reasons that he became involved in this suit, because he felt that it was wrong for his child to have to go so far a distance to receive a quality education.”

There is so much to celebrate in this case, but remembering the intention of Oliver Brown pushes a reader today to ask the question, “Is our work finished here? Are people still treated like second-class citizens, particularly minority children?” Yes. Looking closely, there is irony in this case as well. The tool that the courts turned to in order to fix the injustice of segregation was also the problem that Oliver Brown sought to change. Federal courts often imposed forced busing on poor black children in an attempt to desegregate school systems. Keep in mind Brown’s initial concern was the distance his child needed to travel to school to receive a quality education.

When asked about her own legacy in the same documentary, Linda instead credits her father and the other parents involved in the case for trying to remove the stigma for children living without a choice. For the most part, the courts no longer mandate busing, but many large school districts continue to bus poor children away from nearer neighborhood schools. Brown vs. the Board did not change the fact that, like Linda Brown Thompson, district assignments, not parents, have complete control over where children must attend school.

In other words, the problem that Oliver Brown wanted to fix is still too often alive and well in our country even though the infrastructures which enforce them may look different, but removing school district lines that create inequality and spatial sorting in neighborhoods would change things. As studies have shown, not only does this change empower parents as Oliver Brown would have wanted, but it also has the potential to reduce segregation and mirror the true racial composition of the surrounding areas. The Win-Win Solution: Empirical Evidence on School Choice by Greg Forester includes a table summarizing how school choice options desegregate schools.

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Linda Brown Thompson pointed out that it takes every-day human beings like you and me to push for change. Consider this inspiring story of parents who were empowered to fight for the very best opportunity for their children. Then, spend some time learning about the inequality created by spatial sorting on our website. You have the power to change neighborhoods and schools. Make your voice heard. Honor the legacy of Linda Thompson Brown by helping to erase the lines that separate poor children from the schools that they deserve.

Above photo: Carl Wasaki/Life Images Collection/Getty Images Linda Brown outside Sumner Elementary School in Topkea, Kansas, in 1953.