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Plaintiff's daughter honors desegregation case 70 years later in Phoenix

Newspaper clipping
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
Educational displays about the Brown v. Board of Education case.

In remembrance of the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the lead plaintiff’s daughter visited Phoenix this week to address the State Bar about the lasting impact of the landmark ruling and the ongoing struggle for equality.

Cheryl Brown Henderson was around 3 years old when the Supreme Court’s ruling finally came down. Her father, Oliver Brown, had agreed to be the lead plaintiff on the case.

She remembers both her parents as active civil rights supporters.

“They weren't activists as a young married couple, but they had been in high school,” said Brown Henderson, “which kind of set the stage for his willingness to be part of this.”

Brown Henderson described her father as a relatively quiet, thoughtful person whose life centered heavily on his work as a pastor.

He died when Brown Henderson was just 13. But as she got older, she became curious about the case and started the Brown Foundation to help educate others.

“Schools and children were the battlefront, but society was the target,” she said of the case. “The NAACP was really after getting a definitive interpretation of the 14th Amendment.”

The movement to get the suit to court was significant in its own way.

“Martin Luther King, for example, was only 24,” said Brown Henderson. “That's five years out of your teens. That's pretty young. And a lot of the foot soldiers, as they called them during the Civil Rights Movement, were teenagers and 20-somethings. My parents were just barely into their 30s.”

Alice Finn Gartell’s father, Herbert Finn, was a prominent civil rights lawyer in Phoenix. She appeared alongside Brown Henderson to address the State Bar, and said her father was also in his early 30s when he became involved with spearheading efforts to desegregate schools throughout the state.

“The extent to which the bias was there, I think, is surprising to people,” said Finn Gartell.

With so many people moving here from out of state, she said the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Arizona goes largely overlooked.

“But still, I went to an ‘all-white’ high school. Central High School here was ‘all-white,’” Finn Gartell said, adding the experience made finding her children diverse schools to attend a top priority later in life.

She also said contemporary activism is more important than ever, especially in schools.

“Although things are much, much better than they were back then, of course, racism and all kinds of, you know, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, all kinds of things like that have really reared their ugly head,” she said. "And we have to be aware of it and fight it, because it doesn’t go away.”

Brown Henderson encouraged young people to feel empowered and engage in local activism.

“They should never feel as though they’re helpless,” said Brown Henderson. “They are not. They are far from helpless. And the one thing political leaders and public officials fear is young people. Because when you make a decision that something needs to change and you organize around that, you are unstoppable.”

EDITORS NOTE: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Alice Finn Gartell's name.

Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.
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