Six of the Women Behind Brown v. Board of Education

Throughout the history of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc (LDF), women have been the lifeblood animating our efforts to achieve racial justice. From our brilliant attorneys and intrepid organizers to our innovative policy experts and courageous clients, LDF’s work has always relied on the ingenuity and persistence of extraordinary women. Few cases better exemplify this tradition than Brown v. Board of Education. As LDF commemorates the 65th anniversary of this transformative victory, we celebrate the women whose invaluable contributions made that triumph possible.

 

Constance Baker Motley

Brown v. Board Attorney Constance Baker Motley

After working with LDF founder Thurgood Marshall, Motley became LDF’s first female attorney and wrote the original complaint in Brown v.Board. In addition, Motley played an important role in representing Black students seeking admission to the Universities of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as well as Clemson College in South Carolina. She claimed her greatest professional achievement was the reinstatement of 1,100 Black children in Birmingham who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations in the spring of 1963. Motley also directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

One of twelve children and the daughter of immigrants, Constance Baker Motley rose to become the first Black woman to ever argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court as well as the first Black woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first woman to be Manhattan borough president.

 

Doris Faye Jennings Alston and Doris Raye Jennings Brewer

Brown V. Board Plaintiff Doris Faye Jennings Alston   Brown v. Board Plaintiff Doris Raye Jennings Brewer

At the ages of 13, Doris Faye and her twin sister, Doris Raye, were plaintiffs in a lawsuit to desegregate schools in Hearne, a small town sandwiched between Houston and Dallas, Texas. In September 1947, Doris Faye and Doris Raye, accompanied by their parents, attempted to enroll at a white junior high school in Hearne. In their elementary years, the girls had attended local public schools, but after graduating, their parents found that the building that housed their junior high and high school – Blackshear – was uninhabitable.

The school building had burned down the year prior, only for the school board to have the structure poorly rebuilt using railroad ties and old tires. The twins’ father, C.G. Jennings, worked with the Hearne NAACP to file a lawsuit that fall to desegregate the schools, listing both Doris Faye and Doris Raye as plaintiffs.

After garnering support from the local branch and other outraged black parents, the lawsuit was realized in just a few short months. Then, in the spring of 1948, Thurgood Marshall agreed to argue the case. Although the lawsuit was unsuccessful, it was the first case Marshall used to create the foundation for the success in Brown v.Board.

 

Katherine Carper Sawyer

At the tender age of 10, Katherine Louise Carper solidified her place as one of the youngest heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Along with her mother, she was the first to sign onto the lawsuit that would eventually become Brown v. Board. The segregated school system in which Katherine was enrolled required her to travel over 8 hours to and from school each day. The harrowing trek required Katherine to brave the elements, walking through fields and down unpaved roads to catch the bus to school.

Brown v. Board Transcript from Katherine Carper Sawyer

 

Linda Brown Thompson 

Brown v. Board Plaintiff Linda Brown

In 1951, LDF represented Reverend Oliver L. Brown, on behalf of his third-grade daughter Linda, in a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education. Reverend Brown had attempted to enroll his young daughter in the all-white Sumner Elementary School. When the school refused to enroll Linda, she was instructed to attend the under-resourced all-Black Monroe School, two miles away from her home. Reverend Brown promised Linda that he would challenge the school’s decision.

In 1979, Brown Thompson sued the Topeka schools, on behalf of her own children, for not following through with desegregation as mandated by the original Brown case. Federal Judge Richard Rogers ruled in favor of the school district, but an appeals court reversed his ruling. The Supreme Court then declined to review the decision. Judge Rogers approved a desegregation plan for the school district in 1993.

In a 1985 interview for PBS’ “Eyes on the Prize” documentary, Brown Thompson said of the pivotal Brown v. Board decision, “I really think of it in terms of what it has done for our young people, in taking away that feeling of second-class citizenship. I think it has made the dreams, hopes and aspirations of our young people greater, today.”

 

Barbara Johns

As a 16-year-old student, Barbara Johns led an all-Black student body in a walkout to protest the conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. The student strike in 1951 – one of the earliest youth-led protests of the civil rights movement – led Johns and some of her fellow students to request LDF representation in order to sue for a new building. Ultimately, the goal of the Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County lawsuit was changed to securing an integrated school, and the case was consolidated at the Supreme Court into the Brown v. Board case.

Read more about Johns incredible life in the New York Times’ recent obituary, as part of their Overlooked series.