CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that ‘separate but equal’ segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Nearly 10 years later, Charleston still hadn’t received the memo, so another ‘Brown’ case was born: Millicent Brown et al v. School District No. 20, Charleston, SC.
The case was brought by 13 black children and their parents, with 12-year-old Millicent serving as the lead plaintiff. Millicent’s father, J. Arthur Brown, was the president of the Charleston Chapter of the NAACP.
The Browns were no strangers to the racism that was rampant in the south. Millicent says that unequal treatment colored much of her childhood.
“One of my earliest memories was being accompanied by a parent or an older siblings and we would have to go on the bus through the front door, put our money in, and then get off the bus and walk to the back door, and get on the [back of the] bus in order to ride. I may have been 3 years old but I’ll never forget it.”
But as she got older, things began to change. Millicent says movements for social equality were beginning to take hold, and she had a front row seat:
“It was very important that our house be a safe place for conversations and so that’s where meetings were held… We had Roy Wilkins, Ralph Abernathy, Thurgood Marshall would stay with us.”
Despite radical calls for change at home, Millicent’s school was still stuck in the past, with outdated facilities and materials that had been “used and abused and tossed aside by white students.”
Millicent’s parents had been pushing for better schools for their children for years.
Originally, Millicent’s older sister was the lead plaintiff in the case, but the court system was so slow that her sister graduated high school before the case was heard. So, Millicent replaced her as the lead plaintiff.
They eventually won the case, and Millicent stepped into Rivers High School in September of 1963.
She received a less than warm welcome.
Millicent said that some even went as far as making bomb threats. And the aggression wasn’t just coming from her peers. She said that “there were other manifestations” that came from teachers as well.
The hostile environment took a toll on her. Millicent says that it was a “heavy psychological burden to put on children.” She said she knows others had it worse, but she has spent many years “thinking about the emotional impact that happened — not just the physical abuse, because that is just one kind of abuse.”
Millicent is often asked why she bore such a burden.
One reason was a matter of principle: “We knew our rights. [We] were taxpaying citizens. I had the right to go to any public school in Charleston County District 20.”
Another reason, perhaps the main reason: “somebody had to do it.”