Linda Brown, who was at the center of the historic 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, died on March 25 at the age of 75. After decades of the “separate but equal” doctrine ruling over the country, Brown’s landmark case deemed that segregated schools were “inherently unequal”—sparking nationwide desegregation and, for Brown, a lifelong fight for education equity.
Brown’s death has prompted many to look back at the struggle to end segregation and foster racial equality in education, but what we must do now is look forward. Despite her powerful legacy, Brown’s fight goes on—and today, segregation in schools is rife and on the rise.
Born in Topeka, Kansas to Leola and Oliver Brown in 1943, Linda Brown didn’t see segregation in all facets of her life—she actually grew up in a rather diverse community. “I played with children that were Spanish-American,” Linda Brown explained in an interview in 1895. “I played with children that were white, children that were Indian, and Black children in my neighborhood.” Nonetheless, because of her race, Brown had to attend an all-Black school much further away from her home than a local school for white students.
Every day, Brown had to walk through a rail yard, across a busy street and then take a bus to get to class. Her father, upset with the absurd distance of the school, decided in 1950 to enroll Brown in the much closer, but all-white, Summer School. Racial segregation, however, was the law of the land in Kansas, and his request was immediately denied. “I could tell something was wrong, and [my father] came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” Linda Brown recalled of that day. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”
The Browns turned to the NAACP for assistance—and together, they filed a lawsuit that would reach the highest court in the country. In a dramatic case argued by then-civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was anything but equal. “To separate [African Americans] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race,” the Court declared in a unanimous decision, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
In one swift motion, Brown v. Board of Education overturned a deeply discriminatory approach to education shaping the country—but change was much slower to come to actual communities and individual classrooms. Many schools in the South remained stubbornly segregated by law, and it wasn’t until concerted bussing systems and even federal troops stepped in that change finally came to districts across the country. By 1988, the number of Black students attending a majority white school had jumped from zero to 43 percent. But that year ended up being the peak of the desegregation movement—and today, the numbers have dramatically reversed.
Studies show that just 23.2 percent of Black students now attend majority white schools in the South, on par with where the figure stood in 1968, and 41.8 percent of all Latinx students in the South attend an intensely segregated school. These rates of resegregation are only growing: In North Carolina, the percentage of racially isolated schools in the state jumped from 19 to 24 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2016.
Segregation, though, isn’t—and hasn’t been—just a problem in the South. It’s countrywide, in both conservative and liberal areas. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, nearly a third of Black students attend racially isolated schools. In New York City, which claims the title of the nation’s most diverse public school district, 19 of 32 public schools have 10 percent or less white students and 90 percent of all charter schools in the city have been deemed intensely segregated. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Mount Diablo Unified School District, which is 36 percent Latinx and 41 percent white, has a wealthy suburb trying to break away and form its own district. If the suburb succeeds in leaving, then it’s racial makeup would be only eight percent Latinx and 65 percent white—in stark contrast to Mount Diablo’s current demographics.
A number of factors have contributed to the rise of segregation in the country. In the South, many of the districts find themselves no longer under court oversight—they no longer face orders to desegregate their schools and promote integration. Elsewhere, cities have propped up their segregated systems through housing and school zoning maps instead of explicit policies.
In 2018, the Supreme Court’s declarations from 1954 remain salient—and serve as a warning, especially in the age of Trump, that the U.S. must not fall back on its progress. A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that schools with high percentages of poor and Black or Latinx students offered significantly fewer science, math and college preparatory classes and maintain higher rates of holding back, suspending or expelling students. For students of color, racial segregation devastates their chance at a quality education right from the start; for white students, it often breeds racial prejudice and intolerance, which only further perpetuates the vicious cycle of systemic racism.
Linda Brown was just a young child when she and her father decided to stand against the unjust segregation of Topeka’s schools, but it was ultimately a fight she would continue for much of her life. In 1979, with her own children in school, Brown reopened the original Brown v. Board of Education case, suing the school district for not following through with desegregation. The courts ruled in her favor, and the city established several magnet schools to remedy the situation.
Sixty-four years after the Supreme Court first decided Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. has not yet lived up to the promise it made to Linda Brown—but her legacy remains a foundational part of the fight ahead.
“I kind of felt the sadness about both her death, but also our nation’s failure to live up to the true vision of Brown by the time she died—the idea that she didn’t get to see that,” Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin told NPR. “Because of Brown, the next generation of young people were willing to march. You know, the children of Birmingham were willing to march and fill the jails for this idea that, I should not be limited in anything based on my race. And that is a profound legacy. […In] each generation, there are people who were willing to get up and continue to fight for that.”