Linda Brown died Sunday. Her name won’t mean much to people until they associate it with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal school segregation not only in her hometown of Topeka, Kan., but across America.
Brown was only about 11 when the court ruled on several lawsuits filed by her father and other plaintiffs. The decision linked her name to the civil rights movement a decade before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led children past snarling police dogs and fire hoses spewing water as they marched to integrate public accommodations in Birmingham, Ala.
Tragically, however, 64 years after the Brown decision, the dream of integrated schools seems just as elusive in many parts of this country as it was when Linda Brown was a little girl.
A study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project showed that while nearly 38 percent of black students attended a majority white school in 1998, by 2013 that figure had dropped to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the share of public schools with 10 percent or fewer white students has more than tripled to 18 percent.
Why the retreat from integration occurred isn’t a mystery. What the courts give, the courts can take away – and they did just that when it comes to school integration.
Unpopular court orders in the 1960s and 1970s, which required cross-district busing and mandatory school desegregation plans, were voided once more conservative jurists were appointed to the federal bench. With fewer sticks to force integration and not enough carrots to entice it, America’s schools again reflect their largely segregated surroundings.
Most black children today attend a so-called minority-majority school, where white students can be an anomaly. That is especially true in urban school districts in cities abandoned decades ago by white families during the great suburban exodus.
Linda Brown’s father, Oliver, went to court to get her into a white school because he knew it could offer her more academically. The same, unfortunately, remains true in many cases today.
Poor school districts in cities and towns with meager tax bases can’t give their students the same advantages that rich school districts can afford. Because blacks and Hispanics in America are disproportionately poor, so are their schools.
Most of these often-destitute schools do their best, but the results for black and brown students are glaring, including lower high school graduation rates, more young adults neither in school or working, and lower-paying jobs for those who do find work.
Those facts are why Linda Brown’s death, at age 75, needs to do more than register a blip in people’s memories of the little girl seen in faded black-and-white photographs, who in 1954 became a symbol of the right of every American child to a good education.
At a time when today’s youths marching for gun control are saying children must be heard, Brown’s death should spark a new movement to make her father’s dream come true. A dream where children’s ambitions are not limited by skin color or economic status, a dream where every child has value and every child can succeed.