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Linda Brown, of Brown v. Board of Education, dies

NEW YORK — Linda Brown, who as a Kansas girl was at the center of the landmark US Supreme Court ruling that struck down racial segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education, died Sunday in Topeka, Kan.

Ms. Brown’s death was confirmed Monday by a spokesman for the Peaceful Rest Funeral Chapel in Topeka, which is handling her funeral arrangements. He did not specify the cause, and sources conflict on her age, either 75 or 76. She lived in Topeka.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel at NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said in a statement that Ms. Brown was one of a band of heroic young people who, along with her family, courageously fought to end the ultimate symbol of white supremacy — racial segregation in public schools.

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‘‘She stands as an example of how ordinary schoolchildren took center stage in transforming this country. It was not easy for her or her family, but her sacrifice broke barriers and changed the meaning of equality in this country,’’ Ifill said.

It is Ms. Brown’s father, Oliver, whose name is attached to the famous case, although the suit that ended up in the Supreme Court actually represented a number of families in several states. Oliver Brown objected when his daughter was not allowed to attend an all-white school in her neighborhood.

In 1954, in a unanimous decision, the court ruled that segregated schools were unconstutional because they denied black children the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

“In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,’’ Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. ‘‘Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’’

The Brown decision overturned the court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which on May 18, 1896, established a ‘‘separate but equal’’ doctrine for blacks in public facilities. The ramifications of the Brown decision are still being felt.

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‘‘Sixty-four years ago, a young girl from Topeka, Kansas sparked a case that ended segregation in public schools in America,’’ Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer said in a statement. ‘‘Linda Brown’s life reminds us that by standing up for our principles and serving our communities we can truly change the world. Linda’s legacy is a crucial part of the American story and continues to inspire the millions who have realized the American dream because of her.’’

Brown v. Board was a historic marker in the Civil Rights movement, likely the most high-profile case brought by Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in their decade-plus campaign to chip away at the doctrine of ‘‘separate but equal.’’

‘‘Her legacy is not only here but nationwide,’’ Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis said.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, Linda’s sister and the founding president of the Brown Foundation, an educational organization devoted to the case, recalled her parents and others being recruited to press a test case.

“They were told, ‘Find the nearest white school to your home and take your child or children and a witness, and attempt to enroll in the fall, and then come back and tell us what happened,’” she said.

In an interview with The Miami Herald in 1987, Linda Brown remembered the fateful day in September 1950 when her father took her to the Sumner School.

“It was a bright, sunny day and we walked briskly, and I remember getting to these great big steps,” she said. “I remember the steps being so big and I was so small.”

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The school told her father no, she could not be enrolled.

“I could tell something was wrong, and he came out and took me by the hand and we walked back home,” Ms. Brown said of her father. “We walked even more briskly, and I could feel the tension being transferred from his hand to mine.”

By the time of the Supreme Court ruling, Ms. Brown was in junior high school. She later became an educational consultant and public speaker. As for her role in the landmark case, Ms. Brown came to embrace it, if reluctantly.

“Sometimes it’s a hassle,” she told The Herald, “but it’s still an honor.”

Oliver Brown became a minister at a church in Springfield, Mo. He died of a heart attack in 1961. Ms. Brown and her sister founded in 1988 the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.

The foundation says on its webpage that it was established as a living tribute to the attorneys, community organizers and plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court decision. Its mission is to build upon their work and keep the ideals of the decision relevant for future generations.

‘‘We are to be grateful for the family that stood up for what is right,’’ said Kansas state Representative Annie Kuether, Democrat of Topeka. ‘‘That made a difference to the rest of the world.’’

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.