Fifty Years Later, the Brown Sisters Look Back
Feature Story by Rosa Garza - 3/15/2004Half a century ago, two young girls named Cheryl and Linda made history when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of their father, Oliver Brown, against the Topeka, Kan., Board of Education. Since that historic decision determined that separate is not equal, the nation has struggled to define and put into practice the notion of equality in education.
In commemorating Brown v. Board of Education's fiftieth anniversary, sisters Cheryl Brown Henderson and Linda Brown Thompson visited the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor on January 12 to assess the high court decision. While acknowledging that the United States has made progress since 1954, Brown Henderson and Brown Thompson emphasized that the nation's struggle with race and education is not yet over. Rather, they said, the case should still be a call to action, as it was 50 years ago.
In 1951, thirteen families, including the Browns, sued the Topeka Board of Education in order to challenge the segregation of schools. The unanimous Supreme Court ruling in May 1954 not only overturned the doctrine of "separate but equal," but also affirmed the importance of education as the foundation of American citizenship. Denying students access to quality education was denying full participation in the nation's opportunities, the Court found.
Despite the ruling, many school districts fought the decision, some deciding to close schools in opposition. Many white families left neighborhoods rather than have their children go to school with black classmates.
Today, inequalities in education continue, particularly with school' access to resources that prepare students for higher education. The most under-funded schools tend to be in poor and urban neighborhoods, consisting mostly of minorities. For Brown Henderson, the most frustrating aspect of the issue is that students themselves often are blamed for lagging behind academically, instead of focus being on limited access to resources as the root of the problem.
In their address, the Brown sisters expressed their agreement with the Supreme Court's June 2003 decision to affirm the value of diversity and uphold the consideration of race in admissions. After reading Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion that the consideration of race would be obsolete in 25 years, the Browns were hopeful, but guarded, about putting a timeline on the need for affirmative action policies.
The Brown sisters also stressed the need for students and young adults to continue the fight for equal opportunity. Remembering that their parents and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were in their late-20s and early-30s when they joined the fight for equality, the Browns called on students to take action and work for solutions to the problem of equal opportunity in education.
About 1,000 people, including students at U-M who are part of the Americans for a Fair Chance Student Leader Network, attended "A Conversation with the Brown Sisters."