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Linda Brown, Whose Case Ended Segregation in US Schools, Dies

Linda Brown Smith, date and location unknown. Smith was a third grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

Linda Brown, who as a girl in the 1950s was at the center of the lawsuit that struck down racial segregation in U.S. schools, died Sunday at the age of 76.

"Linda Brown is one of that special brand of heroic young people who, along with her family, courageously fought to end the ultimate symbol of white supremacy -- racial segregation in public schools," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The life of every American has been touched by Linda Brown. This country is indebted to her, the Brown family, and the many other families involved in the cases that successfully challenged school segregation."

Brown was nine years old when her father, the Rev. Oliver Brown, sued the school board in Topeka, Kansas, to allow his daughter to attend an all-white elementary school close to her home.

Theirs was one of several similar cases that resulted from recruiting efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) aimed at challenging the city's school system. The cases were combined and made it to the Supreme Court collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Many schools had long been segregated as part of a wider system of discrimination known as the Jim Crow laws that persisted largely across the southern United States. They enforced separate public drinking fountains for blacks and whites, as well as extreme rules and taxes imposed on blacks who tried to vote, keeping most from participating in elections and helping white leaders remain in power.

An 1896 Supreme Court decision gave those laws a strong legal footing on the basis that as long as the separate facilities were equal, then they were permissible.

In Linda Brown's case, the school her family wanted her to go to was both a better school and closer to her home than the one she had been attending.

Linda Brown Smith, 9, is shown in this 1952 photo. Smith was a 3rd grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision.
Linda Brown Smith, 9, is shown in this 1952 photo. Smith was a 3rd grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision.

"Obviously Sumner is a better school than Monroe; a more up-to-date school, a newer school, as I have indicated," James Buchanan, the acting head of the state's board of education, told a lower federal court.

The judges at the lower court went on to rule that Topeka's system was acceptable, saying the schools were substantially equal in their facilities and teachers.

The Supreme Court rejected that view, delivering a unanimous decision in 1954 that remains one of the most famous cases in the court's history.

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote.

He highlighted the importance of the issue, saying education is perhaps the most important function carried out by state governments and that the circumstances of a child's schooling have a profound effect on their life.

"To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone," Warren wrote.

Paying tribute

Brown's death Sunday brought tributes from leaders celebrating the legacy of her case.

"Sixty-four years ago a young girl from Topeka brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America," Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer said on Twitter. "Linda Brown's life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can have an incredible impact and that by serving our community we can truly change the world."

Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia said as a child Brown's "courage and bravery inspired us."

"Students all around our nation are forever in your debt for the sacrifices you made in the fight for equality in education," he said.

But they also acknowledged the work that remains in bringing equality to American schools.

"We send our thoughts and prayers to Linda Brown's loved ones. May she rest in power," said the Congressional Black Caucus. "The struggle to end 'separate but equal' continues as our schools are becoming increasingly more segregated."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the Supreme Court decision "loudly proclaimed" that separate is not equal, and that today "we remember how far we've come in one lifetime and how far we have to go."

Compliance with the Supreme Court's decision was not immediate, with several states resisting the order to desegregate.

In 1957 in Little Rock, the capital city of Arkansas, the state's governor ordered national guard troops to surround a high school in order to prevent a group of black students from attending classes, saying if they did, "blood will run in the streets."

By 1958, seven states still had laws segregating public schools, and three states did in 1961.

Schools had several options for integration, including redrawing school district boundaries or busing students to different schools to change the racial balance.

Cities such as Boston had controversial busing programs for decades with parents complaining about kids being sent far from home and questioning whether the efforts were still necessary. Many of those programs have been abandoned, but segregation still persists in U.S. schools.

According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, the number of schools where black students make up at least 90 percent of the population rose from about six percent to 19 percent between 1988 and 2013. At the same time, schools with 90 percent white student populations fell from 39 percent to 18 percent.

Part of the change can be attributed to the United States becoming increasingly less white.

The Civil Rights Project says persistent segregation is worst in northern and western states, and that the 17 states with a history of explicit segregation laws have not led the list since 1970.

"The ironic historic reality is that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court supported very demanding desegregation standards for the South while the interpretation of Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation limited the impact of Brown in the North and West," it said in a report.