[September 25th marks the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine integrating the city’s all-white Central High School. So this week, after a special post on Little Rock and race, I’ll focus on a few other early Civil Rights moments, histories, and figures.]
On the forgotten figures at the heart of the crucial Civil Rights victory.
I don’t think I would get much argument if I called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) the most famous Supreme Court decision to advance social justice and equality (ie, as contrasted with equally famous high court decisions such as Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, or Citizens United that upheld or amplified inequalities instead). With yesterday’s blog subject and NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall successfully arguing the case for the plaintiffs, a group of African American parents constituted out of the plaintiffs from five parallel lower court cases including Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren and the Supreme Court returned a unanimous, landmark decision that overturned the concept of “separate but equal” in the nation’s public education system, set in motion the long, slow, painful, crucial process of desegregation, and is generally considered the first key moment and victory in the modern Civil Rights Movement.
So Brown is already very well known, and justifiably so. But I would nonetheless argue that its plaintiffs, and most especially the 13 Topeka parents who filed the initial 1951 class action lawsuit against that city’s Board of Education on behalf of their 20 children, remain almost entirely unremembered and unknown. Like Rosa Parks and many other seemingly individual Civil Rights activists, these parents took action as part of a coordinated campaign: the Topeka chapter of the NAACP decided in the fall of 1950 to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine in the city’s schools, and the group of parents were recruited and selected by local NAACP leaders including chapter president McKinley Burnett, secretary Lucinda Todd (who also became one of the plaintiffs), and lawyers Charles Scott, John Scott, and Charles Bledsoe. Yet that broader context does not in any way invalidate the unique and interesting identities and stories of each of those thirteen Topeka parents, such as lead plaintiff Oliver Brown (a welder, assistant pastor, and the only male plaintiff, fighting for his third-grade daughter Linda) or Lena Carper (a clinical child care worker at a children’s hospital, fighting for her daughter Katherine), to name only two. While it might be more difficult to remember a moment through 13 brave individuals (as opposed to through one like Rosa Parks), each and every one of them deserves a place in our collective memories of Brown and the Civil Rights Movement.
Moreover, better remembering the Brown plaintiffs would help us remember the vital historical lesson for which I argued in this piece for the Washington Post’s Made by History blog. As I argued there, many (if not most) of our most significant legal and social advances and victories have originated with courageous and dedicated individuals, relatively “ordinary” Americans (ie, not presidents or other already-prominent public figures) pursuing justice and equality for their own lives and families. To be sure, they have had to ally with powerful friends and organizations to achieve that success, just as the Topeka families worked with the NAACP at both the local and national level. And of course the powers that be (such as the Supreme Court) have not always come down on the side of these activists for justice. But often they have, and in any case these inspiring individuals and families represent a crucial and far too easily overlooked thread in our collective history and story. Just one more reason to better remember the 13 parents who set in motion Brown v. Board of Education.
Next Civil Rights post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or figures you’d highlight?
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