Linda Brown , 9, is shown in this 1952 photo. Smith was a 3rd grader when her father started a class-action suit in 1951 of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., which led to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision against school segregation.

‘Every American has been touched by Linda Brown’

Namesake in landmark Brown v. Board of Education case dies in Topeka

We know her last name, but the first name was often lost. 

Linda Brown was a 9-year-old girl whose father tried to get her a better education by enrolling her into the all-white Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kan. 

But there was also a practical reason. Sumner was just five blocks from home, while the all-black Monroe Elementary School, which required her to take a bus, was 20 blocks away. 

When the school refused to admit Linda, her father Oliver L. Brown sued the Topeka Board of Education. The case, which was later combined with four similar cases, provided the foundation of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. 

Linda Brown, that little girl at the heart of the case, died Sunday in Topeka. She was 76 years old. Brown’s sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, the founding president of The Brown Foundation, confirmed the death. 

“We thank God for the life and living of Linda Brown,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “Her being a child, less than 10 years old, being a plaintiff in the most fundamental decision of our lifetime. We thank God for for her. May her soul rest in peace.”

"Sixty-four years ago, a young girl from Topeka brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America,” Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer said in a tweeted statement. “Linda Brown's life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can have an incredible impact and that by serving our community we can truly change the world." 

Argued by Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the case legally ended school segregation in the United States. 

By unanimously ruling that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," the U.S. Supreme Court said “separate but equal” schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. 

The ruling overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which established the separate but equal doctrine. 

But although the court directed schools to desegregate "with all deliberate speed," it failed to establish a firm timetable, and in some cases, schools took decades to fully comply. 

In this May 17, 1954, file photo, George E.C. Hayes, left, Thurgood Marshall, center, and James M. Nabrit join hands outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after justices declared in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that separate but equal schools for black children were unconstitutional.
Photo: Special to the American-Statesman

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Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the case the “the most important, transformational Supreme Court decision of the 20th century,” and said Linda Brown represented a “special band of heroic young people who… fought to end the ultimate symbol of white supremacy – racial segregation in public schools. 

“She stands as an example of how ordinary schoolchildren took center stage in transforming this country,” Ifill said. “It was not easy for her or her family, but her sacrifice broke barriers and changed the meaning of equality in this country. The life of every American has been touched by Linda Brown. This country is indebted to her.” 

Born in 1942, Brown was in third grade in 1951 when she was denied admission to Sumner. 

In a 1985 interview for the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” Brown said she grew up playing with kids from all races, but that her father was concerned with the quality of education that she and other black children in Topeka were getting at the time.

"He felt that it was wrong for black people to have to accept second-class citizenship, and that meant being segregated in their schools, when in fact, there were schools right in their neighborhoods that they could attend, and they had to go clear across town to attend an all-black school,” Brown said. “And this is one of the reasons that he became involved in this suit, because he felt that it was wrong for his child to have to go so far a distance to receive a quality education." 

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The landmark May 1954 ruling was one of the earliest major civil rights victories, coming three months before the murder of Emmett Till and 18 months before Rosa Parks sparked the Civil Rights Movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

Joan Johns Cobbs, whose family were plaintiffs in Davis v. Prince Edward County, the largest and only student initiated case consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, said the 1954 decision was the very definition of landmark. 

Her sister Barbara Rose Johns Powell, spearheaded that case, by leading a student strike for equal education at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. 

Powell was the daughter of Violet and Robert Johns and the niece of Vernon Johns, whose dismissal from Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church opened the door for a young pastor from Atlanta – Martin Luther King Jr., who led the bus boycott. 

“It meant a lot to us, because the result of the whole thing was the fact that all students, regardless of race, where able to go to any school that they wanted to,” said Cobbs, who was 16 at the time of the ruling. 

Powell died in 1991. 

Funeral arrangements have not been announced for Linda Brown. The Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka is handling funeral arrangements.

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