Linda Brown’s passing, March 25, 2018 at the age of 76, was widely covered by news outlets and sources. They exalted Brown as the symbol of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, and shared a photograph of Brown in junior high school, when the Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools. It was fortunate Brown was not around to see that photograph- because the girl in the photo the Associated Press released to member outlets, the photo that was posted next to erroneous accountings of Brown v. Board of Education by even trusted news sources, was not Linda Brown.
“How could the life of Linda Brown, the black woman at the heart of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that declared segregated schools as unlawful, be declared, with one fell swoop, both historically significant and invisible?” Valerie Russ asks in her piece for philly.com. Childish Gambino daringly asks the same question about the dichotomy of the heavy presence of blackness in American culture and music, contrasted with the invisibility, devaluation, and exploitation of the black person in America in his latest song and music video, “This is America.”
Linda Brown, herself, had expressed feelings of being exploited as early as the late 1970’s. The Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation unconstitutional came May 7th, 1954, 105 years after the first case against segregated schools was fought (and lost) in 1849. Brown was 8 years old when the NAACP convinced her reluctant father, Oliver Brown, to join 12 other parents in the suit against the Board of Education of Topeka. Oliver Brown was assigned as lead plaintiff, being the only male plaintiff named in the Topeka suit. Thus Linda Brown, his daughter became the symbol of the NAACP’s fight against segregation, but more importantly the fight against “separate but equal,” the ultimate target of the NAACP. Her identity became that of all black children oppressed by segregation and “separate but equal.” As Brown grew into the Civil Rights activist that reopened the Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka with the ACLU in 1979 (winning in the Court of Appeals in 1993), her actual activism was overshadowed by her public image, frozen in time as the 8 year old girl whose father championed her rights to an education equal to that of her white peers.
Another part of Brown’s often misreported story were the complex dynamics of segregated schools in Topeka and across the states. Black Topekans were not all in support of desegregation, in fact, most were against it. Brown described her school, Monroe Elementary School as a “very nice facility, being very well-kept” (Eyes on the Prize Interviews, 10/26/1985). The four all-black elementary schools in Topeka were considered comparable in resources, facilities, and curricula to all-white schools. And all-black schools also had black teachers. Teachers who were personally interested and invested in their pupils’ success. Not so at the integrated junior- and high schools, where black students were largely ignored, if not ostracized by white teachers. Today many black students continue to suffer from being ignored or disregarded, or infantilized by self-promoting “white saints.” Integrated junior- and high schools may have been more convenient for students to get to (the argument for desegregation for Oliver Brown personally centered on the fact Linda had to cross train tracks to travel an hour by bus to the all-black school), but they did not find the same educational support as they had at their all-black elementary schools, a pattern that would continue through generations to stunt the educational growth of black students and negatively impact their ability to compete with their white counterparts in the workforce.
But we don’t talk about these complex issues of blackness in America, and we interchange a photo of one black girl for another. This is America.