Today's public understanding of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education has been shaped by misconception and inaccurate information.
While Brown v. Board of Education is one of the most important milestones in U.S. history, it is often misunderstood. Below are commonly held myths about the case, and the realities of what actually transpired.
Myth 1: Brown v. Board of Education was the first legal challenge to racially segregated schools in the United States.
Fact: African American parents began to challenge racial segregation in public education as early as 1849 in the case of Roberts v. City of Boston, Massachusetts. Kansas was the site of eleven such cases spanning from 1881 to 1949.
Myth 2: The Brown case in Kansas came about because Linda Brown was denied access to her neighborhood school and had to walk dozens of blocks to attend an African American school.
Fact: The Brown case was initiated and organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leadership who recruited African American parents in Topeka for a class action suit against the local school board. Although school buses were provided for African American children, they were only allowed to attend designated public schools based on race.
Myth 3: The only plaintiff in the Brown case was Oliver Brown on behalf of his daughter.
Fact: In 1952, Brown v. Board of Education was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court as a combination of five cases from various parts of the country, representing nearly 200 plaintiffs.
Myth 4: Oliver Brown's name led the roster in the Topeka case because it was the first alphabetically of the 13 NAACP plaintiffs.
Fact: The Kansas case was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster. There actually were two plaintiffs with the surname of Brown: Darlene Brown and Oliver Brown. The only male plaintiff was Oliver Brown, for whom the Topeka case was named.
Myth 5: Oliver Brown initiated the suit against the Topeka Board of Education.
Fact: Oliver Brown was asked to join the class action suit by Charles Scott, one of three attorneys serving as legal counsel for the Topeka NAACP.
Myth 6: The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was based on the Topeka case.
Fact: The U.S. Supreme Court combined five cases under the heading of Brown v. Board of Education from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Those individual cases were Belton v. Gebhardt (Bulah v. Gebhardt) (Delaware), Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas), Briggs v. Elliott (South Carolina), Davis v. Prince Edwards County School Board (Virginia), Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia) .
Myth 7: Thurgood Marshall was the NAACP attorney for the case of Brown v. Board of Education
Fact: The strategy to use the courts to challenge segregation in public education began with the NAACP under the leadership of Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston during the 1930s. Houston was the former Dean of Howard University Law School. Thurgood Marshall was hired into the NAACP by Houston, and worked on Brown with a team of attorneys.
Myth 8: The objective of the NAACPs legal challenge in the Brown v. Board of Education, was to eliminate segregation in public education.
Fact: Ultimately, the NAACP sought to end the practice of "separate but equal" throughout every segment of society, including public transportation, dining facilities, public schools and all forms of public accommodation.
The initial court ruling rendered in 1954 that determined racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional is known as Brown I. The court implementation mandate of "with all deliberate speed" in 1955 is known as Brown II. In 1979, three young African American attorneys in Topeka petitioned the court to reopen the original Brown case to examine whether or not the local school board had in fact ended all vestiges of segregation in public schools. That case is known as Brown III, which resulted in Topeka Public Schools building two magnet schools to comply with the Courts findings.
The National Parks Service maintains an education center in downtown Topeka about the struggle for American American equality. Visit it at 1515 SE Monroe Street, Topeka, KS 66612. Call the National Park Service at (785) 354-4273 for additional information.