The woman, who at age 10 stood at the center of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education that ended school segregation laws, died Monday. Linda Brown Thompson was 76.
The 1954 decision stemmed from her father Oliver Brown’s attempts to enroll Linda in Sumner Elementary School in Topeka.
“Sixty-four years ago, a young girl from Topeka brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America,” stated Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer. “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.”
Although the school was closer to the Browns’ home, it was deemed a white school and the Topeka Board of Education said Linda had to attend Monroe Elementary instead, an all-black school which was about two miles farther.
Brown joined with several other plaintiffs in a class action headed up by the NAACP that challenged the legality of segregated school districts. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“As a young girl, her courage in the face of one of the darkest forces in American history fundamentally changed our nation,” the NAACP said in a written statement. “For that, we owe her our eternal gratitude.”
Brown went on to attend Washburn and Kansas State universities. She later worked as an educational consultant and public speaker. According to Linda, her father was concerned about her having to walk so far just to get to a segregated school.
“I was a very young child when I started walking to school,” Brown said in a 1985 interview for the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years.”
“I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner, and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all-black school.”
Brown said her father was also concerned that the idea of “separate but equal” didn’t apply to black schoolchildren.
“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,” Brown said.
Oliver Brown, for whom the case was named, became a minister at a church in Springfield, Mo. He died of a heart attack in 1961. Linda Brown and her sister founded in 1988 the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.
The foundation says on its website that it was established as a living tribute to the attorneys, community organizers and plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court decision. Its mission is to build upon their work and keep the ideals of the decision relevant for future generations.
No cause was given for Brown’s death. Her family confirmed the death but added that they will not comment further.