Sixty years after her father won a landmark case that began the integration of U.S. public schools, Cheryl Brown Henderson says social rifts are still persistent but so is the determination of people to close them.
CHAMPAIGN — Sixty years after her father won a landmark case that began the integration of U.S. public schools, Cheryl Brown Henderson says social rifts are still persistent but so is the determination of people to close them.
Henderson was the keynote speaker at Friday's countywide event celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. She is one of three daughters of Oliver L. Brown, the namesake of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
She dispelled a couple myths about the case, and she also challenged listeners to be leaders and to keep fighting for reform, particularly in today's schools. "It's insane," she said, that many of the same fights from the Brown v. Board of Education era still exist.
"Sixty years later, we're still doing battle over who has the right to what education," she said.
Henderson said there is a political side to the issue, and that even the election of Barack Obama as president stirred racial tension that had been submerged for years. The room was full of local political leaders and candidates on Friday. She thanked them, but also challenged them to be reformers and see to it that U.S. schools include multi-cultural curriculum and diverse student bodies.
"They need to just relax, do the job we elect them to do," she said.
She said everyone has a role in ensuring quality education for all. The achievement gap is real, she said, and she thinks students don't get the message that education is important.
"Community-based leadership is the answer," she said, and families need to be sure they are raising teachable children.
"Not every child who lands on the doorstep of the school is teachable," she said. "There are a lot of social issues that need to be addressed first."
As for her late father, Henderson suspects his gender might be the reason for his notoriety. Brown was only one of 13 plaintiffs in the lawsuit — the other 12 were women. Brown was the ninth person to sign the petition, and he would have been second in alphabetical order — the top spot would have gone to Darlene Brown.
She said her parents' reputation as activists is not totally accurate. The NAACP recruited parents to go to the nearest white schools and try to enroll their black children. When the white schools refused, the NAACP filed the lawsuit on the parents' behalf.
"They were simply raising their three small children," she said. "History came knocking, literally, on our door."