Children Forcing Changes
Linda Brown, of Brown v. Board of Education fame, just passed away at the age of 76. When she was 9, in the early 1950s, Linda became the face of the desegregation battles in the U.S. with her family as the lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education. Later in life, Linda recalled that in her middle class neighborhood in Topeka, Kansas, she played with children who were white, black and Latino. However, she could not attend the nearby grade school. Instead, her daily journey to the all black school included walking through a rail yard, crossing a busy road, and taking a bus. Topeka considered such circumstances for black grade school children as “separate but equal” to Linda’s neighborhood white friends who simply walked two blocks to school.
Through the courageous battle by Linda, her family, other black families and the dedication of lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall, Linda’s challenges resulted in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which dealt a death blow to the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine. Unanimously, the Supreme Court rejected “separate but equal” as violative of the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Declaring separate educational facilities “inherently unequal”, the Supreme Court stated in Brown:
“To separate [children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”
What becomes of a nine year old grade school student who was thrust into a national debate on a culturally divisive topic? First, Linda Brown was never able to attend her nearby public school as it remained segregated during the years’ long litigation process. Linda became an educational consultant and public speaker on issues associated with desegregation. She was quite active in her church. Despite her otherwise quiet and low-key lifestyle, in 1979, Linda answered the call again to serve as the lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education II which challenged the sufficiency of actions by school districts to implement Brown v. Board of Education mandates. These very public litigations defined her life. As to her association with such a landmark case which fostered in a cultural change in America, Linda later stated, “Sometimes it’s a hassle, but it’s still an honor.”
Kansas Governor, Jeff Colyer, remarked at Linda’s passing: “Linda Brown’s life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can have an incredible impact and that by serving our community we can truly change the world.”
Linda Brown and her family deserve all the credit for pushing uphill against the firmly established segregation systems. By the early 1950s, at least some in society could acknowledge that separate systems were far from providing equal opportunities. Yet many (i.e., the majority) were not ready for complete change. Many remained staunchly opposed to desegregation. The Brown family and other civil rights activists knew they would confront not merely opposition, but also threats and intimidation. With the image of nine year old Linda Brown at the forefront, they continued the battle. A child lead the way and changed the world.
Are the Parkland Teens simply a passing phase in the continuous news cycle or might they be a modern day Linda Brown? As you have seen the images by now, the Parkland Teens are the group of survivors from the tragic school shootings at Stoneman Douglas school in Parkland, Florida. Seemingly unlike the survivor groups at other horrific school shootings (unfortunately too many to list), the Parkland Teens have moved well beyond the raw, emotional, grief stricken friends and classmates into something much more.
The Parkland Teens demand changes to strengthen gun laws to better prevent future tragedies while providing safer schools. Linda Brown’s struggle sought changes through the court system. The Parkland Teens are using the political and legislative processes. Both approaches can achieve change in our democratic society. Just note the Parkland Teens accomplishments to date. Within a week of the massacre at their school, the group yet to be known as the Parkland Teens, held a nationally televised forum where 2 U.S. Senators and a U.S. Representative from Florida had to directly confront gun control issues as well as victim families. The Parkland teens forced immediate action by Florida law makers. This group then organized the national March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. involving hundreds of thousands. The Parkland Teens put forward a 5 point plan demanding action for their cause. That 5 point plan cleverly includes elements which have already either legislatively or judicially been determined not to run afoul of the 2nd Amendment.
The Parkland Teens accomplished these actions in about one month’s time. We have heard “talk” from leaders of the need to do something after Columbine, Sandy Hook and all other school shootings. Nothing has ever materialized. Yet, the Parkland Teens have been able to gain traction on gun control where all other efforts stalled out. Frankly, I am not entirely certain as to why.
In the 1950s with Linda Brown, society was probably not aware that they were at an historic moment for desegregation and civil rights. We may be at an historic moment with the Parkland Teens. These concerted efforts may result in meaningful gun control measures and, as important, acceptance of gun control laws and regulations. The movement started by the Parkland Teens just feels different. The NRA, for all its political clout and bluster, appears a little on its heels for the first time in my memory. Politicians such as Marco Rubio, a staunch “guns rights” supporter, is “rethinking” his positions. The Republican governor of Florida signed into law gun control legislation passed by a Republican controlled state legislature.
Please note, for this article, I am not advocating in favor of or against gun rights or gun control measures. Linda Brown’s passing and reflection on her accomplishments has made me wonder whether we are at a cultural shift in our evolving and ever-changing democratic society when it comes to the issue of gun control. Genuine societal shifts on issues held so dear by so many are difficult to see in real time. Usually we need the space of time and historical perspective to pinpoint when these shifts take place.
In retrospect, we can identify societal shifts and associate them with events. Some events are fairly clear. The Boston Tea Party and signing of the Declaration of Independence let the Crown know that the arrangement had changed forever. The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery. The passing of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Other events needed time before we recognized that we were at a point of change. Linda Brown’s lawsuit, when filed in the early 1950s was “just another” civil rights lawsuit but it became so much more. Instead of the 19th Amendment, perhaps it was Susan B. Anthony getting arrested for voting in 1872 which really lead to the suffrage movement for women.
The Parkland Teens fundamentally seek to start a movement to address gun control. In a few months time, when the endless news cycle focuses elsewhere, we may have difficulty recalling their name. But maybe, just maybe, the Parkland Teens have tapped into something deeper and they may be the engine which drives a national gun control debate. If so, then we should take time now to wonder at the societal seismic shift these children are placing in motion. Such events rarely happen in our society. Linda Brown was one such force. Let’s see if the Parkland Teens can have an “incredible impact” that can truly change the world. Let the children lead the way!