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Updated 2:00 PM January 19, 2004



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Brown sisters explore half-century of desegregation

Cheryl Brown Henderson, whose father was the lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, told a crowd at Rackham Auditorium Jan. 12 that most movements have been dominated by people under age 40, and she encouraged students to continue pointing out things they want to see changed and making their voices heard.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, left, and Linda Brown Thompson encourage students to make their voices heard on issues that matter to them. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Brown Henderson and her older sister, Linda Brown Thompson, participated in a dialogue with students as the University kicked off a semester-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision and the legacy of changes that followed, right up to the 2003 rulings on U-M's admissions policies. More than 1,000 students and members of the community attended the event.

Brown Henderson noted the unanimous Brown ruling declared that "education is the most important function of government, and without it, a child cannot expect to succeed." She argued that the high court's 2003 U-M rulings reaffirmed that important message.

"Brown v. Board was never just about sitting next to white children—it was about sharing the same resources they had access to," she said. "Education was the down payment on freedom. Education is the down payment on opportunity."

Linda Brown Thompson, left, and Cheryl Brown Henderson sign autographs for some of the more than 1,000 people who attended their Jan. 12 speech. Their appearance kicked off a semester honoring the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Brown Thompson told the crowd what it was like to be a little girl growing up as an African American in a mostly white neighborhood, playing with white kids and then finding out she couldn't go to their neighborhood school. Instead, she was bussed across town to an all-Black school.

"We lived in the calm of the hurricane's eye, looking out at the storm and wondering how it would end," she recalled.

Her father, the Rev. Oliver Brown, worked with the NAACP, which filed suit. Similar cases from other states were combined into the Brown case. A young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, who later would become the first African American justice on the Supreme Court, took the case to the high court. By the time it was settled four years after it was filed, Linda Brown was ready for junior high, which already was integrated.

U-M students spoke with Brown Thompson and Brown Henderson for more than two hours, with the latter concluding that each generation had something to learn from the other.

Participants asked one another questions about segregation today, whether the fear following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was bringing new discrimination and limits on freedom, how far they'd come, where education should be going, and whether preferences for legacies should continue.

“Education was the down payment on freedom. Education is the down payment on opportunity.”
—Cheryl Brown Henderson

Asked if Jackie Robinson's 1947 admission into Major League Baseball was more important to integration than the Brown decision, Brown Henderson said the truly historic change occurred during World War II, when African Americans fought for freedom overseas and decided they would accept no less for their native land after they returned home.

She argued the Brown legacy, which is being celebrated by U-M with a series of events now through May, was truly significant for five reasons:

• It marked "the beginning of the end" of legal segregation in the United States

• It struck down laws in 21 states that permitted or required segregation

• It overturned the high court's infamous 1896 "separate but equal" ruling that had allowed segregation to flourish, especially in the South

• It recognized the broad power of the 14th Amendment and established that states no longer could arbitrarily limit the rights and freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution

• It altered U.S. foreign policy and helped the United States win the Cold War. While the United States condemned Soviet human rights atrocities, the Soviets routinely fired back with stories about civil rights abuses in this country. The Truman administration argued in a brief to the court that the ending of segregation would give the United States a higher moral position in confronting communism.

Brown Henderson, who today runs the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, told students that while the landmark case changed her life, she did not personally experience racism until she got to college.

The sisters noted that residents of their hometown of Topeka, Kan., were outwardly civil to members of other races even though the Board of Education had made threats, saying minority teachers at then all-Black schools could lose their jobs if desegregation was backed by the court.

Last June's Supreme Court ruling in the U-M cases, which upheld the use of race as a factor in university admissions policies, was considered by many to be a once-in-a-generation case. Reporters asked the sisters about Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's argument that the use of racial preferences should "no longer be necessary" in 25 years.

"She had to say it," Brown Henderson said. "You always have to hope. I think it was the right thing to say. Though will it happen? I can't say."

For more on Brown events, visit:

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