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3 student activists carrying on Linda Brown's legacy

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Carl Iwasaki | The LIFE Images Collection | Getty Images

On Sunday, Linda Brown, key plaintiff in the monumental Brown v. Board of Education case, passed away at the age of 76. While the issues of racial discrimination and segregation live on today, the legacy of her activism provides an important lesson for today's burgeoning class of student activists: You're never too young to make a difference.

In September 1950, Brown was about to begin the third grade. She lived in Topeka, Kansas a few blocks away from Sumner Elementary, but was forced to walk across a busy road, cross train tracks and take a bus in order to attend an all-black school over two miles away.

"I can still remember taking that bitter walk and the terrible cold that would cause my tears to freeze upon my face," said Brown in a speech at the University of Michigan.

Nine-year-old Linda Brown as she walks past Sumner Elementary School in Topkea, Kansas, 1953.
Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Nine-year-old Linda Brown as she walks past Sumner Elementary School in Topkea, Kansas, 1953.

Her father, Reverend Oliver Leon Brown, attempted to enroll then 7-year-old Linda at Sumner Elementary, but his request was denied. Oliver and a dozen other plaintiffs worked with the NAACP to file a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education that would become the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

In the 1955 ruling, the court unanimously decided to strike down the "separate but equal" doctrine created by Plessy v. Ferguson, making school segregation illegal.

"Linda Brown is one of that special 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," says Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a statement. "She stands as an example of how ordinary school children took center stage in transforming this country."

Today, "ordinary school children" across the country are working to create safer and fairer environments for themselves and their classmates. Here are three student activists following in Brown's footsteps:

Naomi Wadler

To mark the one month anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, tens of thousands of middle school and high school students walked out of their classrooms for 17 minutes to remember the 17 lives lost.

Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler and her classmate Carter Anderson organized one of the few elementary school walkouts with one important adjustment — the students stood in silence for an additional minute to honor Courtlin Arrington. Arrington, an African-American high school senior, was killed in a school shooting just weeks after Parkland.

The fifth-grader also gave a much celebrated speech at the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24. "I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential," the preteen said, to roaring applause.

"People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult — it's not true. My friends and I might still be 11, and we still might be in elementary school, but we know. We know life isn't equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong."

Marley Dias

Like Linda Brown, 13-year-old Marley Dias called attention to issues of racial inequality in education at a young age. In 2015, when she was just 10-years-old, Dias founded #1000blackgirlbooks in response to what she saw as homogeneous school curriculum. While she originally planned to collect and donate 1,000 books that feature black girls as main characters, today her movement has donated over 10,000.

Dias is also the author of "Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You!)," has spoken alongside Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and is the youngest person on Forbes' 2018 "30 Under 30" list.

In her book, she writes, "In my class — in all fifth-grade classes — we were required to read 'classics,' books like 'Shiloh,' which is about a white boy and the dog he rescues. And 'Old Yeller,' which is about a white boy and the dog that rescues him. And 'Where the Red Fern Grows,' which is about a white boy and the two dogs he trains."

When Dias began the #1000blackgirlbooks movement, she quickly learned how difficult it would be to reinvent the way black girls are represented in literature. Today, she uses her frustrations to her advantage.

"Frustration is fuel that can lead to the development of an innovative and useful idea," she tells Forbes. "This gaps hurts all of us. I'm working to create a space where it feels easy to include and imagine black girls and make black girls like me the main characters of our lives,"

Joelyn Mensah

In Montpelier, Vermont, high school senior Joelyn Mensah continues Brown's legacy by calling attention to the ways in which racism impacts students' lives inside the classroom.

"I think it's very fair to say that we're pretty much robbed of our education," she tells NBC. "As a black student, there have been many times where I have had to leave class because of some racist comments."

In order to address these issues of inequity, insensitivity and lack of representation in her predominantly white community, Mensah founded the Racial Justice Alliance. To celebrate Black History Month, the group decided to work with their school administration to raise a Black Lives Matter flag on campus.

Mensah and her peers faced significant pushback from legislators including, State Representative Thomas Terenzini who called Black Lives matter a "national anti-police organization."

"I think black lives matter in all realms," Mensah explained to the Burlington Free Press. "And really the education system is where it starts."

After overcoming resistance from lawmakers and even threats of violence, Mensah led a large group of students, teachers and police officers in raising the flag on February 1st.

According to State Representative Kiah Morris, this action made Montpelier High School one of the first public schools in the nation to raise the Black Lives Matter flag, calling it a "bold and courageous move."

"It is imperative that we collectively, as a community, work to dismantle the systemic racism embedded in our schools," Mensah tells Mic. "Even after Black History Month comes to an end, we will still be here, our education will still matter and we will still be black."

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