Brown, 76, died Sunday, and the lawsuit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, led to the desegregation of schools.
Brown was just 9 years old when a public school in a Midwestern city refused to enroll her because she was black.
Administrators stood behind the "separate but equal" doctrine, which was the law of the land for more than 50 years, a Jim Crow segregation philosophy, which promised "equal protection" despite the demeaning practice of pitting whites against blacks.
“In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that we were separate but equal, but we know that was never true. When I was in school, first grade through eighth grade, we got handed down books,” said Wilson County school board member Johnie Payton, who, four years ago, was the first black woman elected to the board.
In 1951, 13 Topeka parents challenged that notion in a class action suit on behalf of their 20 children and called on the school district to reverse its racial segregation policy.
The named plaintiff was a welder named Oliver Brown, whose daughter, Linda, a third grader had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to a black school one mile away, despite living near a white school only seven blocks away.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund took up Brown's cause, with its lead lawyer, Thurgood Marshall plotting their strategy.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka reached the Supreme Court. On May 17, 1954, the high court, led by Warren, a former Republican governor of California handed down its decision, declaring the "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional.
“The Linda Brown case started everything for us. I was 4 years old and didn’t really understand what was going on. But as I got older, I did understand,” Payton said.
In August 1963, Payton and 12 other students decided they wanted to make the switch to Lebanon High School, which took a legal battle before they entered the school.
Payton said it was common for schools to continue to refuse black students even after the Brown v. the Board of Education ruling. She pointed to the Little Rock Nine incident, which took armed guards to allow nine black students to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
However, Payton said the integration of Lebanon High School was a lot smoother than in other areas.
“I think people knew it was coming. You look at Little Rock Nine, Linda Brown and others, and things began to change. They knew it was coming, and they fought it as much as they could. But, we had some problems. It just wasn’t necessarily in the school. We had problems trying to integrate other things,” Payton said.
“The significance of the decision made in the ’50s changed the landscape for public education for generations to come, but the teachable moment today is presenting Linda Brown and her father to a new generation that does not have context or history to understand the courage it would take to challenge, at that time, universal beliefs centered around access to public education,” said Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright.
“Linda Brown had a tremendous impact on education in our country. The landmark case that bore her name brought about change and equality for all students. Brown v. Board of Education ended the practice of segregation in American schools and was the first step in what I consider the ‘all means all’ that we advocate for today in schools,” said Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson.
“When she did what she did, it opened up the door. It was a hard battle, but it opened up the door. Someone had to start it. It began to hit in other areas,” Payton said.
Marshall would go on to be the first black person to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and segregation throughout America continued to take place.
"Sixty-four years ago, a young girl from Topeka brought a case that ended segregation in public schools in America," said Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer. "Linda Brown's life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can have an incredible impact, and that by serving our community, we can truly change the world."
Leonard Greene with the New York Daily News contributed to this report.