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Why Take Student Protests Seriously? Look at Linda Brown

Her death is a useful reminder that students have often served on the political front lines.
File/AP Photo

“It was a bright, sunny day and we walked briskly,” Linda Brown later remembered of the morning in September 1950 when she and her father approached a set of “great big steps” leading to the entrance of Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. Linda’s father, Oliver, was determined to enroll his daughter in third grade at the all-white school, which was closer to the integrated neighborhood where the family lived than the all-black Monroe school. 

But local officials barred her from enrolling in the third grade. “I could tell something was wrong, and he came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” Brown recalled in a 1987 interview with the Miami Herald. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”

Though she did not later become one of the many famous black activists of the 1950s and 1960s, Linda Brown, who passed away last week at age 75, will forever be remembered for her lonely encounter at the steps of Sumner Elementary. Her death serves as a useful reminder that students—sometimes including elementary and junior-high school-age children—often served on the front lines of the nonviolent revolution that desegregated American schools, lunch counters, stores, buses and voting booths a half-century ago. 

It also comes at a curious time, as prominent conservative voices have sharply questioned the relevance of student anti-gun activists who survived a recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. “Children and teenagers are not fully rational actors,” Ben Shapiro wrote in National Review shortly after the tragedy. “They’re not capable of exercising supreme responsibilities. And we shouldn’t be treating innocence as a political asset used to push the agenda of more sophisticated players.” 

Maybe so. But just as, today, it is adults who have exposed children to the dangers of mass school shootings, in the early 1950s it was adults who imposed a brutal race state on millions of black students. And the students, in their wisdom, were some of the first to fight back.

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