Cheryl Brown Henderson talks Brown v. Board legacy, educational equity in Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium

Monday, January 20, 2020 - 7:11pm

Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Reverend Oliver L. Brown, one of 12 parents who filed suit against the Board of Education, speaks at the MLK Symposium about the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education at the Michigan League Ballroom Monday morning.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Reverend Oliver L. Brown, one of 12 parents who filed suit against the Board of Education, speaks at the MLK Symposium about the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education at the Michigan League Ballroom Monday morning. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

Activist Cheryl Brown Henderson delivered a lecture on the legacy of landmark desegregation Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education before hundreds of people in the Michigan League Ballroom Monday afternoon. The talk was part of the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

Brown Henderson is the daughter of lead plaintiff Oliver Brown in Brown v. Board of Education and founding president of The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research. The foundation aims to uphold the decision made in Brown v. Board and provides scholarships to minority students

She said Brown v. Board’s legal and cultural impact is huge in this country, and continues to protect key rights.

“Brown represents the need to have this country live up to its constitutional principles and its founding documents and all of the things you know were not originally intended for us,” Brown Henderson said. “Brown v. Board basically defended the sovereign power of all of us in this room as U.S. citizens not to have our rights arbitrarily restricted by state and local governments.”

Brown Henderson tied her experiences as a teacher to the Symposium’s theme, “The (Mis)Education of US.” The theme aims to address how minority groups and their experiences are often sidelined, and how this can lead to bias and discrimination.

“We don’t understand the importance of teachers,” Brown Henderson said. “Teachers are the bedrock, and you cannot build a skyscraper without bedrock. If you take the teachers out of the mix, it would be utter chaos.”

Rackham student Naitnaphit Limlamai told The Daily after the event that she agreed with Brown Henderson from her vantage point as a high school English teacher for 13 years.

“They do these studies where everyone loves the school in their district, but overall they think the schools are awful in the United States,” Limlamai said. “How is that possible if everyone thinks their school district is awesome? So it’s not just about valuing teachers but it’s also about supporting them.”

Brown Henderson emphasized the ongoing inequalities in American education, citing the contemporary charter school and voucher movements. She also said the well-known Supreme Court announcement from Brown v. Board, “in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place,” was not the most important aspect of the decision.

“The part of the opinion I believe he should’ve announced says that education is the most important act of state and local governments, and that no child can expect to succeed in life without the benefits of an education and that education is the foundation of citizenship and should on an equal measure,” Brown Henderson said. “Maybe we wouldn’t still be fighting, 66 years later, over who has a right to a world-class education.” 

LSA freshman Taylor Johnson said she appreciated the historical significance of Brown Henderson’s visit to the University and said it put her own experience on campus in perspective. 

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to have someone who lived during that time where people like me struggled to get an education that was deemed adequate,” Johnson said. “I feel like for students of color it’s a really big thing to take your education seriously since these people had to get taunted basically every single day while trying to go to these schools that were newly integrated.”

At the end of her presentation, Brown Henderson called the audience to action, encouraging everyone to vote if they want to see a more equitable education system.

“It’s up to us to speak out, especially at the ballot box,” Brown Henderson said. “Being a United States citizen is not a spectator sport. It’s not something you can just sit idly by and observe. You have to be engaged, you have to participate.”

Following the event, LSA senior Nando Felton told The Daily Brown Henderson’s lecture inspired him as he starts a nonprofit organization in the education sector and hopes to work in education policy.

“In the grand scheme of things, we have to put people in office that make positive change, we have to make sure that the administration makes the change, and even the person that ends up in the White House has to make that change,” Felton said. “That’s the kind of work and the footsteps I want to follow to make sure I can be in a position to make change.”

Brown Henderson closed her talk with a message of unity. 

“Often times I think our biggest challenge with respect to race and diversity, multicultural issues and issues of gender, is a perception gap,” she said. “If you sit down over a cup of coffee, that perception soon melts away.”

Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu