Lessons in Collective Leadership from Black History: Brown v. Board of Education

To illustrate this point, let’s take a close look at the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 for Oliver L. Brown, et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS), et al. case, which ended legal racial segregation in public schools. Leaders today can learn so much from this one case if we look at it through the lens of collective action, not just the work of one lawyer.

Lesson 1: Black people have historically built power by working together, not alone.

Plaintiffs in the Brown case totaled 43 parents and 117 students. It is, indeed, important to recognize Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case before the Supreme Court and would later become the court’s first Black justice. However, there would have been no case without the vision and action of dozens of Black people in several cities throughout the country, who challenged racial segregation in public schools.

The umbrella case that went to the court gets its name from only one family: Linda Brown and her father, Oliver, who wanted to send Linda to the school closest to their home but couldn’t because of segregation laws in Topeka, Kansas. However, the Brown case in Kansas was a joint effort led by a group of 13 parents.

When we only speak of Marshall, or even the Browns, the collective work that changed this country is erased. “Stronger together” is not just a slogan. It is how Black people have tested and challenged this country’s democratic ideals since the passage of the 14th Amendment.

A leadership question to ask ourselves:

How do I understand my role in the work as one of the many needed to advance justice?

Lesson 2: People who do not know one another may need to work together to get the job done.

Students and parents who were part of cases bundled under Brown were from five communities across the United States. Activist families in Topeka, Kansas; New Castle County in Delaware; Washington, D.C.; Clarendon County in South Carolina; and Farmville, Virginia, were all plaintiffs. These families did not know one another prior to the case.

For nearly two decades before Brown, the NAACP used legal challenges as its main strategy for ending racial segregation. Marshall, as the civil rights organization’s lead counsel, fought segregation as far back as 1933. There was momentum built by at least four other cases on which he worked and Mendez v. Westminster. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark compiled ample data on the psychological harms of segregation through their research on racial identity in children..

Though the time was ripe, Marshall knew an appeal to the Supreme Court had to consist of more than one child and her family.

Fortunately for the NAACP, there were plenty of everyday people, not tremendously different from our neighbors or family members, who wanted their children to receive a quality education. After seeking out and interviewing people leading local cases, the NAACP saw that these five communities had leaders who were not afraid to take their local fights against school segregation laws to the nation’s highest court.

They did not have to know one another other to know they needed each other to move the issue forward.

A leadership question to ask ourselves:

Without compromising our values, who might I/we need to join forces with to move an issue forward?

The day after “Brown v. Board of Education” was announced, Nettie Hunt sat on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court and explained the decision to her daughter.

Lesson 3: Change takes time.

What the CliffsNotes telling of Brown fails to convey is after the decision, desegregation didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the cases that constituted Brown had been working their way up through lower courts from as early as 1948.

Then, after the 1954 decision, desegregation took more than two decades — and in many ways remains an elusive goal. In fact, the year following the Brown case, in 1955, the Supreme Court had to revise its decision with the phrasing “with all deliberate speed” because states, particularly those in the South, simply defied the decision by refusing to desegregate.

My own mother, Rugenia Moore Henry, was the first to desegregate her junior high school, but this didn’t happen until 1965.

Further, the Brown decision struck down the “separate but equal” mandate established with Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld segregation, and, to a less direct extent, the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The latter essentially stated that Black people, whether enslaved or free, couldn’t become U.S. citizens.

Despite this, Black people, both enslaved and free, continuously challenged and defied these mandates, not only through the courts but also by starting our own schools and carving out spaces for learning. Black people have always, publicly and clandestinely, worked to educate themselves.

Brown was certainly a high-watermark moment in civil rights history, and yet it was simply a midpoint for the long struggle for racial equity in education, which continues today.

A leadership question to ask ourselves:

Who came before us in this work? How are we laying the foundation for future change makers?

Rugenia Moore Henry was one of the first seven Black students to desegregate Litchfield Junior High School in Gadsden, AL in 1965. (edited)

Lesson 4: Change requires courage — and we are braver when we work together.

The families whose cases made up the Brown case knew that simply by insisting on an equitable education for their children, they would be the targets of white violence and other harassment, such as having their jobs threatened.

Many of us are aware of how, in 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the state National Guard to prevent Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. And many of us know this because of the harrowing image of Elizabeth Eckford — again, an individual — attempting to enter the school while white parents and students bullied her. But Eckford was part of a group of eight other students, collectively known as the Little Rock Nine, who, due to the skillful organizing of Daisy Bates, attended a school they knew belonged to them, too.

Little Rock wasn’t the only place where white resistance to educational equality was strong and often violent. Throughout the country, for the remainder of the 1950s and throughout the 1970s, in places including Chicago and Boston, white parents fought to keep Black children from attending schools with their own.

Parents, including my own grandparents, had to quell their fears of what would happen to their children, who they knew would surely face white rage while trying to go to school. Not only did thousands of Black students face physical and psychological violence when desegregating white schools, white people’s disdain of racial mixing showed itself for decades after.

White schools were closed rather than desegregated. White parents sent their children to parochial or private schools or simply fled neighborhoods, cities, and towns with significant Black populations to whiter spaces. Even when Black and white students walked through schoolhouse doors together every day, they were often segregated by class and “ability,” as a slick way of instituting segregation using new means.

Even seemingly harmless initiatives popular today, like charter and magnet schools, allow white students to attend public schools without having to have too many Black children as classmates. Nevertheless, BIPOC activists, both adults and youth, continue to fight courageously for equitable resources and education, almost 70 years after the groundbreaking Brown decision.

A leadership question to ask ourselves:

How can I/we find the courage to take risks and act despite fear?

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1958). Combination photograph of portraits of the Little Rock Nine Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9064b4e7-566b-827d-e040-e00a180628a3

Like most case studies in the history of Black resistance, we must study the Brown v. Board of Education case and decision as the culmination of the work of many instead of one. Once we broaden our perspective in respect to timeline, we also see such moments as critical, but not singular in their importance in the long struggle for Black freedom.

When we ignore the contributions of coalitions and organizations, we are unable to appreciate the need for collective action to address issues we face in the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.

If we view the past through a wide-angle lens, we can learn how to practice effective leadership today. When we situate our work as a part of movements, building alongside others in the middle of a time continuum, we can harness our collective power and use it to create a more equitable and sustainable society.

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Mia Henry is the founder of Freedom Lifted, an education and consulting firm that provides trainings and coaching anchored in social justice leadership.

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