Idea of lifting Brown v. Board of Education name from landmark 1954 case stirs Kansas dissent

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TOPEKA — Carolyn Wims-Campbell attended a segregated Topeka elementary school and rode to high school with Linda Brown, a daughter of the lead plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the doctrine of separate but equal schools.

The case carried the name of plaintiff Oliver Brown, the father of Linda and an assistant pastor of a Topeka church. His third-grade daughter was involved because she walked six blocks to a bus stop for a ride to segregated Monroe Elementary when all-white Sumner Elementary was seven blocks from home. Brown v. Board of Education was the consolidated title of five NAACP education lawsuits.

Wims-Campbell, a former member of the Kansas State Board of Education, said she was shocked and disappointed to learn of a proposal by South Carolina civil rights leaders to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to amend the case name to highlight South Carolina’s role in the litigation.

“I didn’t know anything about that until I saw it on the news,” Wims-Campbell said Wednesday. “Oh, my goodness. I thought, ‘Those people are crazy.’”

On eve of the 70th anniversary of the transformative 1954 ruling, the proposal would replace the Brown v. Board of Education label with that of Briggs v. Elliott. The new name would reflect status of Harry Briggs as a South Carolina plaintiff in the federal lawsuit targeting Clarendon County School Board President R.W. Elliott.

Civil rights photographer Cecil Williams told The Post and Courier of Columbia, South Carolina, that amending the name to Briggs v. Elliot would help restore South Carolina’s standing as a cradle of school desegregation. Briggs v. Elliot was the first of the five lawsuits filed in federal court. It was submitted in May 1950, while the Kansas case was filed nine months later in 1951.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not previously changed the namesake of a long-ago decided case, Williams said.

“Everyone else lays down and says you can’t do this,” he said. “Many will call it crazy. It might be laughed out of court.”

Visitors on April 6, 2023, at the Kansas Statehouse observe the third-floor mural commemorating the landmark Brown v. Board decision.
Visitors on April 6, 2023, at the Kansas Statehouse observe the third-floor mural commemorating the landmark Brown v. Board decision. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Under the decision issued May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Black children were deprived of their right to equal protection under law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Earl Warren wrote in the opinion that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” because segregated schools were “inherently unequal.”

Wims-Campbell, who transitioned in the fall of 1954 to a previously integrated junior high school in Topeka, said elementary schools attended by Black students in the city were considered the educational peer of elementary schools enrolling white students.

She felt well-equipped academically given instruction provided by Black educators at McKinley Elementary, which was one of the four all-Black elementary schools in Topeka.

“I am a proud product of segregation,” Wims-Campbell said.

She said making Brown v. Board of Education the headliner may have had roots in legal strategy of focusing attention on a community where the quality of education in Black and white schools was comparable. It’s also possible it was about making certain a male stood as lead plaintiff, she said.

Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, said there was no definitive answer as to why Brown v. Board of Education stuck. He said some theorized it was as a simple issue of “B” falling early in the alphabet. Another possibility was President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t mind associating the segregation case with his home state of Kansas, he said.

“Others argue whoever named it didn’t want it to be a Southern state,” Beatty said. “There’s a lot of theories.”

He said erasing the name of a prominent U.S. Supreme Court decision would be a mistake. The National Park Service operates the national historic site in Topeka dedicated to the case in the former Monroe Elementary.

“Changing the name would be a disservice,” the professor said. “There’s such a rich history to the context of the case and the name behind it.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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