Brown v. Board lecture dispels myths

By Gus Bode

In 1951, 117 black students in Virginia proved that young people have the power to change a nation.

The student strike that John Stokes and his classmates organized evolved into one of five cases now known as Brown v. Board of Education.

Stokes and Cheryl Brown Henderson, both activists and educators, attempted to dispel the myths surrounding Brown v. Board of Education Thursday during the 2004 Hiram H. Lesar Distinguished Lecture, “Separate But Equal.”


Henderson, daughter of the late Rev. Oliver Brown for which the historic case is named, said the case was a youth movement.

“This country was changed by young people – not by the forty-somethings,” she said.

Even though this year marks its 50th anniversary, it is still “unfinished business,” Henderson said. Citing the 14th Amendment, the 1952 Supreme Court decision overturned its 1896 ruling of “separate but equal.”

But, Henderson said, the 1896 decision was never intended to be equal.

“Nothing in this country happened by accident,” Henderson said. “You only have to open a history book to know it was intentional.”

The Brown decision, which Henderson said was 105 years in the making, brought both good and bad news to the black community.

Henderson said because of the case, people were suddenly willing to listen and talk about race.


But, she said to understand the Brown decision people must first embrace all of the nation’s history, including how blacks came to America and why such a case was needed.

Blacks were divided from the beginning, from the inception of America’s founding documents, Henderson said. The three-fifths clause in the U.S. Constitution began the inequity by not counting blacks as a full person. After that, the 1857 Dred Scott case permitted slavery in all territories. Then in 1896, the court ruled blacks were separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Reconstruction following the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and Emmitt Till’s death only stacked the cards against black citizens.

“Our hands are far from clean in this country in terms of racial inequality,” Henderson said.

The myths of Brown v. Board of Education case begin with its name. The late Rev. Oliver Brown, Henderson’s father, was the namesake of the case, but he was only one of 200 people named in the suit. The case that went before the Supreme Court was actually a combination of five cases from Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware and Washington, D.C.

The 1951 Kansas suit was a part of the efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to bring the case to the federal level. But it was not the first case against segregation. In fact, in Kansas alone, there were 12 previous cases brought to the courts.

In Topeka, Kan., the issues were not about quality of education or poor buildings, but based on the fact that it was unconstitutional.

But in Prince Edward County, Va., Stokes and his classmates faced a four-mile walk to their all-black school only to learn in overcrowded classrooms with potbelly stoves for heating and no indoor plumbing. When the population became unbearable, the school district built shacks with tarpaper roofs to accommodate the students.

Stokes was 19 when 16-year-old Barbara Johns approached him about organizing a student strike for a better school.

Their planning headquarters was based under the school bleachers.

“We knew we were heading into unknown waters,” Stokes said. “We made a vow that we were going all the way even if we died.”

Soon, Stokes said, the news media heard about their intentions and spun the students’ story in negative light, calling them communists.

Before deciding to strike in April 1951, Stokes said they first met with the district superintendent, who refused to look the students in the face during the meeting. He promised them nothing.

“We walked out for a new school, not for integration,” Stokes said.

Oliver Hill and attorneys with the NAACP also met with the Stokes and his classmates, and soon, they became the first case led by students.

In the end, 117 students and 67 parents were involved.

Henderson said the multicultural education might be one of the only ways to “finish the work” and level the playing field.

“I think it is important because unless our white students know from where they come, we are doing nothing but creating a false sense of superiority,” Henderson said. “It would be important to create that sense of history and reveal our commonalities. It is important to know your point of origin regardless of your pigmentation.”

Quinlan Monk, 10, is a Webelo scout who attended the lecture with his troop as part of a badge that helps the scouts learn about issues like Thursday’s lecture. Monk said he thought he knew a little bit about the case before attending, but soon realized he knew nothing.

“It was pretty fascinating,” said Monk, who attends Unity Point School in Carbondale. “I had never heard any of that before. They certainly don’t teach that in school.”

Henderson said today’s youth can make a difference just as Stokes and his classmates did in 1951.

“To me, they don’t realize the difference they can make,” Henderson said. “Kids are really the best barometer of what is right or wrong, but sometimes they don’t feel empowered when in fact, they are. If young people had the same understanding of their ability, it could have the same effect.”