Nearly 60 years after school segregation was outlawed, two members of the family most associated with the case say that the St. Louis area student transfers show that the true goals of the Supreme Court's ruling remain unfulfilled.
Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson, whose Topeka, Kan., family was the lead plaintiff in the landmark 1954 ruling, told an audience at Saint Louis University law school Friday that their case was more about equality of resources and opportunity than simply letting black and white students sit together.
Asked how the transfers from unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens, and the financial burden they have brought, fit into the educational equality the high court ruling envisioned, Henderson said that the true goal was giving everyone an equal chance at achievement.
“I think the challenges that districts are having,” she said in an interview, “are with wanting to make sure they can close the achievement gap and looking at alternate ways to make that happen, and the transfer program here in Missouri seems to be one of those ways.
“The challenge, however, is making certain you don’t bankrupt the district that the students are coming from, so that it can rebuild. Because even though it may have lost accreditation, it should be given the opportunity to go through whatever steps are necessary to regain that, so that the next generation of students can go there with confidence.”
Thompson added that the problem, too often, can be traced to a lack of funding.
“It all boils down to where our legislatures are these days,” she said. “So many of the school districts are having trouble getting money, period, just to keep their children there, and not to send them across town to get educated somewhere else. So I think it all starts with the people who are handling the money.”
In their talk to the SLU civil rights symposium, the sisters reviewed the history that led up to their case, how it affected them personally and how it has played out over the past 60 years.
They recounted the circumstances that led up to their father and other families filing suit to challenge the longstanding policy of “separate but equal” that had been in place since a Supreme Court ruling in 1896.
Rather than attend the whites-only school just a few blocks from their home, where their playmates were enrolled, they had to take a long walk, sometimes through heavy traffic, to a bus stop to catch transportation to a school two miles away.
The question the families asked, Thompson said, was a simple one:
“Why should our children have to travel so far to school, facing unbearable weather, to go so far when there was school just four blocks away?”
By the time the court ruled, Thompson said, the change did not affect her because Topeka already had integrated its junior and senior high schools. But, she added, that only meant that children of different races could sit in the same classrooms.
When it came to extracurricular activities, she said, segregation remained. There were two sports teams, black and white. There were two proms, black and white.
Today, she said, the distinctions are less obvious, but they remain nevertheless.
“It takes a keen eye and ear to detect subtle areas of discrimination,” Thompson said, “because it has become a matter of economic segregation.”
When the unanimous court ruling came down, outlawing such separation of the races – at 12:52 p.m. on May 17, 1954, both sisters noted – it was the end of a long legal battle in one sense, but the start of a struggle that continues today, including unintended consequences such as white flight and the continued separation of the races in schools due to housing patterns.
“People talk about resegregation,” Henderson said in the interview, “and I contend we never did integrate in any huge way.”
She told the crowd gathered on the top floor of the law school’s new home downtown:
“We know that Brown did not end anything. But it dismantled the legal framework that segregation was resting on, paving the way for the civil rights act, paving the way for the voting rights act, paving the way for civil rights marches.”
Both sisters have spent time as teachers and have spoken frequently about the legacy that their case has brought. Henderson is now president of the Brown Foundation, whose website details the history of the desegregation case, including the long legal struggle leading up to the ruling of the court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
As far as where things stand today, both sisters say the battle against prejudice and discrimination continues, even with a black man in the White House. Henderson said that with the historic 2008 election, many hoped that racial animosity had taken a fatal blow.
Instead, she said, “it had only been submerged. And its very presence engendered those folks and gave them a reason, as they saw it, to come out of their hiding place with their racist and vile rhetoric against the president.”
Where will such feelings end, and how? Thompson gave one solution.
"If we start with our children when they’re very young – you can’t wait until they’re in high school and then try to change them – but if we start when the children are in Head Start or in pre-schools and have them learn about other cultures,” she said, “or about being with other people, I think you can get along a lot better.”