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“Brown vs. Board of Education” namesake celebrated as an ordinary man who helped bring about extraordinary change

Drury University commemorates what would have been the 100th birthday of the Rev. Oliver Brown

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., Aug. 19, 2018 — The importance of civil rights in daily American life, and the power of ordinary people to make extraordinary changes were the themes as Drury University and the Springfield community marked the 100thbirthday of the late Rev. Oliver Brown on Sunday.

Brown is best known as the namesake of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending legalracial segregation in American schools. He joined an assembly of parents who would ultimately become plaintiffs for the Topeka NAACP legal challenge to segregated public schools. The case eventually was named for him: Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et. al.

He moved his wife, Leola, and three daughters to Springfield in 1959 to pastor Benton Avenue A.M.E. Church. Drury University now owns the church building and planned Sunday’s celebration as a way of honoring the church, its congregation, and the Rev. Brown and his family.

Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest of Brown’s three daughters, was a guest of honor and speaker at the event. She told the crowd of more than 250 assembled at Central High School – where her older sister Linda graduated in 1961 – that her parents were ordinary people who were simply seeking to ensure a greater opportunity for the next generation.

“No one could have told them what was about to happen – a simple knock on the door,” she said, referencing the invitation to join the NAACP lawsuit.

She couched her family’s story in clear terms for the students in the audience: “If you don’t write your story, young people, someone else will.” In a powerful appeal to continue the work of the civil rights movement and to be civically engaged, she told them: “It’s your turn to add your voices.”

Drury President Dr. Tim Cloyd, himself the son of a Methodist minister, praised Brown and his wife Leola for “standing up.”

They joined the suit, he noted, not because their children were receiving a poor education at an all-black school, but because of the color of their skin “they were being told where they had to go to school and what they had to do. It was a question of justice and decency.”

Cloyd also acknowledged that in many ways our nation has not yet lived up to the ideals laid out in the Brown decision.

“We have a long way to go to reach a place where we can all join hands together, look into each other’s eyes and see ourselves, and be united by our common hopes for our families and our children,” he said. “We have a long way to go to affirm each other in our common humanity and dignity –no matter the color of our skin, our creed, our faith, our sex or our socio-economic class.”

Additional speakers included Georgia Burton, a longtime Benton Avenue Church member, and former City Councilman Denny Whayne, who worked with Brown on civil rights issues locally. Reflecting on what Missouri’s third largest city was like during the Civil Rights Era, Whayne said Brown “was instrumental in turning on a lot of light bulbs here in Springfield.”

Brown Henderson thanked Drury and the Springfield community for the commemoration. She said events like Sunday’s celebration are important reminders that rights are not necessarily guaranteed in perpetuity. Democracy, she said, is not a spectator sport.

“Democracy is messy,” she said. “And that means that when we are called upon, we take a stand.”

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Media Contact: Mike Brothers, Executive Director of University Relations: (417) 873-7390 or mikebrothers@drury.edu

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