Equal access to education remains an elusive goal.
Linda Brown, the student at the center of the Brown v. Education court case that legally ended racial discrimination in US schools, died March 25 at the age of 75, according to her family.
Brown’s legacy is a reminder that meaningful social change often requires both legal action and social awareness, according to the New York Times.
When Brown was growing up in Topeka, Kansas, in the 1940s and 50s, an elementary school was located a few blocks from her family’s home, according to NPR.
Walking to class would have been easy, but Brown wasn’t allowed to attend the Sumner School — it was only for white kids.
Instead, she had to walk a much farther distance and then take a bus to an all-black school.
For her father, Oliver Brown, this unfair treatment was intolerable and one day he led his daughter to the Sumner School, but they were turned away.
“I could tell something was wrong, and he came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” she said, recalling the incident, in an interview with The Miami Herald in 1987. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”
Her father soon joined the NAACP to file a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education, setting in motion what would become one of the most defining Supreme Court cases in US history.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education legally ended segregation in schools throughout the US.
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race,” the court said, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”
Since then, Brown has become a symbol for progress in the US. Her struggle helped to pave the way for the broader civil rights era and gave people legal recourse when facing discrimination.
But even though integration became the law of the land in 1954, US schools are more segregated now than they have been in more than 40 years.
Today, black children are more likely to grow up in poverty than they were 50 years ago and school quality and choice are largely determined by a family’s zip code.
As Vox argues, uneven access to education persists in the US because neighborhoods throughout the country have become more segregated through various policies and actions.
This stubborn reality has partly undermined the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, Vox suggests.
“Six decades after Brown v. Board, we have failed to close opportunity and achievement gaps for our African-American and Latino students at every level of education,” former US Education Secretary John King said in 2016.
“And in far too many schools, we continue to offer them less — less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses; less access to the services and supports that affluent students often take for granted, and less access to what it takes to succeed academically,” he added.
Despite these problems, Brown, who became an educational consultant and public speaker, remained optimistic during her life that school access would improve.
“I am very proud that this happened to me and my family and I think it has helped minorities everywhere,” she told NPR.