- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

Why Oliver L. Brown?

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that the American standard of separate but equal for whites and blacks was unconstitutional.

But the historic strategy behind why Mr. Brown, now deceased, was chosen to lead a roster of 117 plaintiffs in 1954 is debated often without a clear understanding of what happened.

Also lost at times is why the 1950 Topeka civil-action case was chosen as the lead suit among five separate complaints — one each in South Carolina, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Virginia and, of course, Kansas.

Sometimes, the four other cases aren’t even mentioned every May 17 in recitations of the history of the case, whose formal title is Oliver L. Brown et al v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas et al.

Most people also don’t know that the 1950 Brown case in Topeka was not the first lawsuit for school integration in the country. It wasn’t even the first case brought in Kansas. There were 11 others from 1881 until Brown.

“I think political power, or lack thereof, in some communities has something to do with that,” said Charles Ogletree Jr., 53, law professor at Harvard University, whose new book “All Deliberate Speed” reflects on the 50 years since the Brown ruling.

Mr. Ogletree said lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who represented all of the plaintiffs, felt Mr. Brown’s name had to be used.

“It was a sign of the times,” he said. “It had to be a man, and he was a respected member of the community and active in the local church.”

But then why not Harry Briggs, whose struggle in South Carolina was arguably more compelling than the ordeal Mr. Brown and the other families in Topeka went through?

Mr. Briggs was a black gas station attendant in Clarendon County, S.C., who with his wife, Eliza, and 30 other parents, filed suit against school board Chairman Roderick W. Elliott in 1947 for better school facilities for their children.

Mr. Briggs and his wife lost their jobs and were later forced off their land. The family moved to New Jersey, where their son, Nathan, 63, still resides today.

“It had to be Topeka,” said John Stokes, 73, who helped lead a student strike in Prince Edward County, Va., for better schools — the only case where the civil action was led by students.

“In Topeka, because of the location of Kansas, it is not considered the Deep South, and we used to say ‘It’s easier to open a watermelon that is partially cracked than one that is whole,’” Mr. Stokes said.

Howard University Law School graduates Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson represented the plaintiffs in the Virginia case.

There were 2,000 black students in Prince Edward and 1,400 white students when Mr. Stokes, a senior at R.R. Moton High School, was approached by Dorothy Davis, now deceased, for help in organizing a protest.

He said the property values of the white schools in the county totaled $1.2 million, while the black schools totaled $329,000. The county resisted integration and in 1959 shut down the schools for the next five years to keep it from happening.

“Topeka had cracked integration. We knew we weren’t going to crack Prince Edward County,” Mr. Stokes said.

The same held true in South Carolina.

“They used the Kansas case because it looked good,” said Brigitte L. Brown, 40, the daughter of Ethel Belton, who filed a school-integration lawsuit in Delaware in 1951.

“The Briggs case in South Carolina was the first case, but with the racism, and beatings and burnings, and retaliation, they did not want to use that case because it looked bad and was too divisive for the nation,” Mrs. Brown said.

Topeka schools were mostly integrated by 1950 and the city was progressive.

“My brother, Calvin Lawton, went to the integrated Topeka High School,” said Victoria Jean Benson, 58, the daughter of Maude Lawton, one of the plaintiffs in the Topeka case.

Black and white students attended the same classes on the high school and junior high levels, said Mr. Lawton, now 72. Only the elementary schools remained segregated.

“At the time I was there in 1949, we had a segregated basketball team — the Topeka High School Ramblers was the black team and the Trojans were the white teams. We had separate baseball, too, but not football or track. We could play those,” Mr. Lawton said.

He said the city had an integrated movie theater as early as 1943. “The Dickinson Theatre came up and that was integrated … before that, when we had to go to the movies, we had a black-only theatre, and at the Grand and the Jayhawk, we had to sit in the balcony.”

Mrs. Lawton is an example of some of the lost history in the Brown case — the prominent role women played. Women such as Mrs. Lawton, Ethel Belton, Shirley Bulah and others also are often left out of the history books.

“Ethel Belton is a good example, and the NAACP team was nearly all male until Constance Baker Motley came in, and that was one of the challenges, the diversity issue, that you had few women prominent as a part of the Brown team,” Mr. Ogletree said.

Ethel Belton, in 1951 at the age of 15, filed suit with Harvard law graduates Louis Redding and Jack Greenberg as her lawyers against Francis B. Gebhart, school board president for New Castle County, Delaware.

“My mother had a heart condition — six holes in her heart — a genetic defect and they wouldn’t allow her into the all-white Claymont High School down the street where she lived,” said Mrs. Belton’s daughter, Andreia Brown.

Mrs. Brown, 47, said her mother had to walk a long way to get to the bus stop, where she was picked up and driven nearly 30 miles to Howard High in downtown Wilmington.

Her mother won the case. In fact, Belton v. Gebhart was the only Brown case in which the state lost the initial ruling and had to appeal to the Supreme Court.

“Chancellor [Judge] Collin Seitz went to her school and found that the schools while separate were not equal, and that is why I think she won her case,” Andreia Brown said.

However, she never saw the inside of Claymont High as she had graduated by the time the case went to the Supreme Court.

The final case added to the civil action Brown suit was a case from the District.

Spottswood T. Bolling Jr., an 11-year-old, filed suit with help from Charles Hamilton Houston as his attorney — later replaced by James A. Nabrit Jr. and George E.C. Hayes, after Mr. Houston suffered a stroke — against D.C. school board Chairman C. Melvin Sharpe.

Spottswood, in 1951, with 10 other students traveled from Shaw Junior High in Northwest to the new John Phillip Sousa Junior High School for whites in Southeast on enrollment day. The students were turned away.

Mrs. Belton’s case was not chosen to lead the NAACP lawsuit because her heart condition may have encouraged the courts to rule narrowly, and require that only blacks with debilitating health conditions could integrate.

The D.C. case was not chosen because the District is not a state. It did add a wrinkle, however, as the other cases were argued on the basis of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution against state-sponsored racial discrimination, while the D.C. case was argued on the 5th Amendment right to due process under the law.

None of the arguments is true, said U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Carter, who reargued the Brown case before the Supreme Court.

“Oliver Brown was listed as the lead plaintiff in the Kansas case because the plaintiffs were listed alphabetically. Under this system, Oliver Brown, on behalf of his daughter, Linda, appeared first,” Judge Carter said.

Brown, he said, became the lead case by a procedural event.

“Originally, the cases were listed on the docket in the order that they reached the Supreme Court, with Briggs appearing first,” Judge Carter said.

But by the time the cases got to the Supreme Court, South Carolina’s plan to make black schools equal had not been evaluated by the trial court and the case was sent back to it.

“The Briggs case was taken off the docket, and Brown, which had been the second case to reach the court, was moved to become the lead case,” Judge Carter said.

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