"Where [education] is afforded, it needs to be afforded in equal measure."
Prior to Martin Luther King Jr. marching or Rosa Parks sitting and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a group of parents from around the states came together to fight for equal rights for their children. Thus emerged Brown v. Board of Education.
Many of us grew up learning about Brown v. Board of Education in school, the Supreme Court case that ordered an end to segregated schools, that ruled separate but equal was not truly equal. But much of what we have learned from textbooks or online doesn't capture the true nature of the case in its entirety. Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Rev. Oliver Brown, Brown v. Board's named plaintiff, joined us on campus for History Speaks on February 7, 2022 to dispel the myths around the famous case and give us a look into her family's life in light of it.
"Where Brown v. Board is concerned, the internet is not your friend," Henderson said. "We’ve discovered that online, there are all these stories about Brown that don’t even resemble the truth."
Henderson is the youngest daughter of Oliver and Leola Brown, a direct beneficiary of Brown v. Board. She told the audience that her family was a stereotypical 1950s family, aside from her father being a methodist and her mom a devout baptist. After her father tried his hand at boxing, he felt drawn to pursue ministry, eventually becoming an African Methodist Episcopal pastor. Brown had a heart for service, but never imagined God's calling would play out as it did.
One day after church, when the entire family was home, the NAACP approached Brown, asking him to join the Topeka lawsuit against segregation in local elementary schools. Despite the information detailed in online sources on Brown's journey to the Supreme Court, he hadn't met Thurgood Marshall (a lawyer who later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice), and he hadn't sought out the group himself. In fact, Henderson noted that it was likely her father's gender that landed him the honor of named complainant, the only man among 12 women. He was simply approached by a friend in his home, and, with encouragement from his wife, decided he was in a position to help.
Nonetheless, his participation, along with the legal team and other complainants, changed history.
"History is something we carry with us," Henderson said. "It's not just part of the past."
Despite rumors and myths about the happenings of Brown v. Board, the case decision was monumental. It ruled segregation unconstitutional. Henderson said her father likely never knew the impact it would have on history. She herself didn't want anything to do with it at times, not wanting to draw attention to herself. However, this case was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. Martin Luther King Jr. led on the heels of Brown v. Board. It inspired people to fight for civil rights, showing them how capable communities are at enacting real change.
"Are civil rights a force to be honored to some and not all?"
Henderson reminded the crowd that while we've made progress, there is still work to be done.
Racism still exists - in Oklahoma. In the country. In the world. And we are responsible for advocating for equality and justice. She went on to say that it's not us as individuals, but rather the collective impact that makes change, and we aren't responsible for jumping into something we aren't quite ready or have the knowledge for yet. We are called to start with respect, an open mind and a conversation, to keep our circles diverse. Each of us has our own unique experiences that create our diverse community - it's important we learn from each other.
"Why would you waste the finite number of heartbeats on hate?" Henderson asked the crowd.
Brown v. Board of Education changed the world. But there's work to be done. Henderson continues her father's legacy, teaching crowds about the importance of speaking up and taking action. She left the Oklahoma Christian campus and community a better place than she found it, invoking heart and understanding, leaving us with a mission.