Linda Brown, key figure in US schools segregation fight, dies aged 75

Linda Brown, key figure in US schools segregation fight, dies aged 75
Linda Brown, right, and her two children pose for a photo in their home in Topeka, Kansas, in 1974. Photo: AP Photo/File.

A woman who became a central figure in the fight against racial segregation in US schools has died at the age of 75.

Linda Brown died on Sunday in Topeka, Kansas, her sister Cheryl Brown Henderson, founding president of The Brown Foundation, confirmed to The Topeka Capital-Journal.

As a girl in Kansas in the 1950s, Ms Brown's father tried to enrol her in an all-white school in Topeka. He and several black families were turned away, sparking the Brown v Board of Education case that challenged segregation in public schools.

Linda Brown as a young student. Photo: AP Photo/File.
Linda Brown as a young student. Photo: AP Photo/File.

A 1954 decision by the US Supreme Court followed, striking down racial segregation in schools and cementing Ms Brown's place in history as a key figure in the landmark case.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund, said in a statement that Ms Brown was one of a band of heroic young people who, along with her family, courageously fought to end the ultimate symbol of white supremacy - racial segregation in public schools.

"She stands as an example of how ordinary schoolchildren took centre stage in transforming this country. It was not easy for her or her family, but her sacrifice broke barriers and changed the meaning of equality in this country," Ms Ifill said in a statement.

The NAACP's legal arm brought the lawsuit to challenge segregation in public schools before the Supreme Court and Ms Brown's father, Oliver Brown, became lead plaintiff.

Several black families in Topeka were turned down when they tried to enrol their children in white schools near their homes. The lawsuit was joined with cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separating black and white children was unconstitutional because it denied black children the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

"In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The Brown decision overturned the court's Plessy v Ferguson decision, which on May 18, 1896, established a "separate but equal" doctrine for blacks in public facilities.

"Sixty-four years ago, a young girl from Topeka, Kansas, sparked a case that ended segregation in public schools in America," Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer said in a statement.

"Linda Brown's life reminds us that by standing up for our principles and serving our communities we can truly change the world. Linda's legacy is a crucial part of the American story and continues to inspire the millions who have realised the American dream because of her."

Brown v Board was an historic marker in the civil rights movement, likely the most high-profile case brought by Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defence and Education Fund in their decade-plus campaign to chip away at the doctrine of "separate but equal".

A cause of death for Ms Brown was not released. Arrangements were pending at Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel.

Oliver Brown, for whom the case was named, became a minister at a church in Springfield, Missouri. 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.

- Press Association and Digital Desk

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