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Published: Tuesday, 1/13/2004

Plaintiff's daughters recall part in desegregation case


ANN ARBOR - A half century ago, Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson were on the cusp of history.

Now they hope the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal” will cause people to take a hard look at the ruling and see what it has accomplished and what remains to be done.

“I think for nearly five decades, people have reacted to Brown vs. Board of Education and not necessarily tried to look for a solution,” said Ms. Brown Henderson, chairman of the Brown Foundation. “Education is the foundation of this nation. There hasn't been anything done by accident. There has to be a motivation or people wouldn't [segregate]. We need to examine and talk about that so we can move on.”

The two women spoke last night to about 1,000 students, professors, and residents in crowded Rackham Auditorium on the University of Michigan campus as part of the university's Martin Luther King, Jr., symposium.

The sisters said their father, the Rev. Oliver Brown, had no idea of the legacy the decision would leave or the controversy it would create even today.

“We were living in the calm of the hurricane's eye, wondering if it would ever end,” said Linda Brown Thompson. “When our father stepped off the stand [after his court testimony], he didn't know he was stepping into history.”

Both sisters said they remembered laughter, joy, and celebration at their home at the time of the decision. But they realized in the days and years to come how slowly it would take for change really to come.

Ms. Brown Henderson said the case affected the United States on several levels. Along with overturning the separate but equal doctrine, it forced the country to look at how it was viewed internationally.

“It was the time of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union questioned how the United States could call itself the moral voice of the world while having its own human rights abuses,” Ms. Brown Henderson said. “This country needed a Brown vs. Board of Education.”

The sisters said they were pleased with the number of students across the country who supported the University of Michigan's affirmative action case.

The Supreme Court affirmed a portion of the university's admissions policy, allowing it to continue using race as a factor in admissions.

“Our father was in his early 30s and our mother in her late 20s when Brown vs. Board of Education started,” Ms. Brown Henderson said. “Dr. [Martin Luther] King was just 26 when he entered Ebenezer Baptist Church. They were not much older than all of you in the audience. History is filled with ordinary people making a difference.”

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