In times of civil unrest, when adults and children alike are fighting for their rights in an effort to improve their lives and the world around them, it is more important than ever to look back at those who also fought against astounding obstacles.
On March 25, 2018, Linda Brown, the face of the Brown v. Board of Education case, died after 75 years of life. Her, her family’s and her friend’s contributions to the civil rights movement were profound and changed an entire aspect of American society. It’s important to celebrate her life and accomplishments, but also to recognize and use her success as an example for young people today; anyone really can overcome extreme adversity if people believe in the cause and fight hard for it.
Brown’s fight for equal education began when she was forced to attend an all-black elementary school miles away from her home in Topeka, Kansas, when there was a white elementary school a few blocks away. Her father decided to file a lawsuit, along with 13 other families, against the Board of Education in an effort to fight school segregation.
The Supreme Court unanimously agreed in 1954 that school segregation was unconstitutional and violated the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal rights and equal protection to all born or naturalized U.S. citizens.
The day after Brown’s death, Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer tweeted, “64 years ago a young girl from Topeka brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America. 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.”
Brown v. Board of Education was one of many examples of how young people rose to the occasion during the civil rights movement. After the Brown v. Board of Education case went through, the Little Rock Nine took the next step towards school desegregation in 1957. A group of nine black students enrolled in Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, previously an all-white school. On Sept. 4, their first day of school, the Arkansas National Guard was called to prevent the black students from entering the building. Later that month, President Eisenhower had the Little Rock Nine escorted into the building by federal troops.
A few years later, in 1960, a group of four black college students sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked to be served. They were declined service and asked to leave the counter. The students didn’t give up and go home or get aggressive which could have been very easy in that situation. Instead, they practiced a very controlled, passive and peaceful resistance to racial inequality. Over the next few months, their movement began to pick up speed – or rather, quite the opposite; more people began to sit. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History stated that hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches and members of the community joined in the passive protest which eventually led to the desegregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter.
When thinking about the accomplishments of Brown and other civil rights activists over the past few days, a quote from Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, seems relevant. He said this line in his “Last Lecture,” titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” after he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and was predicted to only have a few months of good health left. The quote is, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” The quote is appropriate, not only when thinking about Brown’s case or the Little Rock Nine or the Woolworth’s sit-ins, but also when one hears about new advocates who are trying to improve our world today.
For example, the #MeToo movement and the women, both celebrities and private individuals, who are advocating for themselves – for their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – are metaphorically breaking down the brick walls which are holding them back from true equality. In the #Enough movement, where people of all ages are fighting to feel safe in their own country, they too are confronting a brick wall they know they must overcome.
Individuals against student activism may think they’re just a bunch of rowdy young people trying to foment insurrection, but what it really comes down to is basic human rights. The young people of the 1950s advocated for desegregation and fought to end racial discrimination and, after a lot of hard work and perseverance, their movement has come a long way. It’s time for young people of today to look back and learn from our nation’s history and push forward toward a better, brighter future. The upcoming generation has seen how slow the government acts, so they’re getting a head-start on the change they want to see. They’re being proactive. The silver lining is that, by the time it actually gets to the floor and is ready for a vote, they could probably be in that room as part of the legislature.
Abbygail Vasas can be contacted at email@example.com