Key figure in Brown v. Board of Education case dies, and yes, there's a faith angle

Before I became a religion writer, I covered education for The Oklahoman.

In 1997, as Oklahoma City public schools ended race-based crosstown busing, I traveled to Little Rock, Ark., and Topeka, Kan., to update readers on two of the nation's most important school desegregation battlegrounds.

My Topeka report mentioned Linda Brown, who — as you may have read — died this week at age 75. (And yes, there's a faith angle. Stay tuned for that!)

As a little girl, Brown was at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down the "separate but equal" doctrine, as I noted in my 1997 Oklahoman story:

The Rev. Oliver Brown and 12 other black Topeka parents sued because their children were forced to attend schools miles from home.
In those days, Topeka had 18 all-white elementary schools and four all-black elementary schools. The Browns lived four blocks from all-white Sumner Elementary. But Linda Brown had to walk seven blocks to catch a bus to all-black Monroe Elementary.

Given that Linda Brown was the daughter of a pastor, I wondered whether religion would figure in news stories about her death. In my Googling, I didn't find a whole lot about the faith angle. But the few links I discovered made the search worth it.

For readers wanting to know what really made Brown tick, CNN had the crucial details that many other reports lacked:

While her name will forever be a part of American civil rights history, her contributions to the community after the case are part of her legacy, too, longtime friend Carolyn Campbell said.
Campbell attended St. Mark's African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Brown played piano and taught children how to play. Before her death, the church dedicated the piano to her.
Campbell described her as a "very quiet person, but spiritual, patient and very kind."
"Linda was a spiritual Christian woman that loved not only the Lord, but she loved her family and took on the responsibility of what Brown v. Board of Education meant to her. Her legacy will be that she shared all of her life with all of us," Campbell said.
She was also instrumental in one of the church day care programs, Campbell said.
"She would read books to children, she was all about children and education."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, published a piece on "The determined black dad who took Linda Brown by the hand and made history."

You may or may not be surprised to learn that the Rev. Oliver Brown's faith figured in how his daughter recalled the aftermath of the high court's ruling:

Linda Brown was returning home from school in Topeka when she heard the news.
When she got home, Brown recalled, “There were tears in my father’s eyes.”
Turmoil ensued in school districts across the country, including “massive resistance” in Virginia, where the state government shut down public schools to prevent integration.
In Topeka, Linda Brown recalled, integration went smoothly in the fall of 1954.
“Neither I nor my family suffered the abuse and racial strife in so many parts of the country,” Brown recalled. “My father believed strongly God would move people to do the right thing.”

Finally, the Topeka Capital-Journal recalled the Rev. Jesse Jackson saying at a Topeka church in 2004 — the 50th anniversary of the case — that Linda Brown's name would live forever:

“God has a way of taking the ordinary people in sub-ordinary positions, exalting them to extraordinary heights and then they become the frame of reference,” he said. “So Topeka is on the map not because of the richest family in Topeka – nobody knows who that is nor does anybody care. Linda Brown’s name, and her father’s name, will live eternally.”

Kudos to the journalists who recognized the importance of faith in telling the story of Linda Brown's life.

May she rest in peace.

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