IN 1954, ON MAY 17TH, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education that separate schools for white and black children were inherently unequal, and segregation came to an end. McKinley Burnett, learning that his dream had finally been realized, told reporters in Topeka, "I say, thank God for the Supreme Court."
The decision marked the fulfillment of a long fight over several years to assure equal education for children. Burnett had begun the campaign in earnest in 1948, when he became President of the Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This wasn't the first time segregation had been challenged in Kansas -- eleven attempts had been made before, dating back to 1881, but by 1948, only Topeka High School was integrated, and that school had separate sports teams and clubs for white and black students. He faced a school board and superintendent who believed that schools should remain segregated, black teachers afraid of losing their jobs, and many who just didn't want to rock the boat. They all faced McKinley Burnett, a man whose drive and determination kept him working for the day when schools would be open to all.
He was born in Oskaloosa, Kansas, in 1897. The years of growing up were marked by discrimination, some subtle, some not. His son, Marquis Burnett, remembered his father being offered parts in the school play only as a dancer or a butler; his daughter recalls her father thinking that the only reason they thought he could dance (he couldn't) was because he was a Negro. As a soldier in the Army and a supply clerk at the Veterans Administration, he found more limits imposed on him because of his skin color. He wrote many letters to various officials at all levels of government, including the President of the United States, about the injustices he saw. In one letter, he described applying for the job of route driver with a Topeka bakery: the sales manager "told me that he could not hire a Negro for such a job and that such had never even been considered, neither had they had such a request before."
Then, in 1948, Burnett became President of the Topeka chapter of the NAACP, and began focussing on integrating schools. Schools had not always been segregated in Topeka, but with the advent of the Jim Crow laws, separate schools were established there by 1927. For two years, Burnett held meetings and wrote letters, trying to persuade the school board to end the practice, to no avail. According to Charles Baston, a member of the NAACP Topeka chapter, the board would often extend its meetings by sitting and joking, hoping the NAACP members at the meeting would leave without speaking. "We never left."
But in 1950, Burnett felt he had no choice: he warned the board that if they didn't end segregation, the NAACP would go to court. The board ignored the threat, and the NAACP, under Burnett's leadership, recruited thirteen black families to challenge segregation by sending their children to enroll in white schools. The 20 children, including seven-year-old Linda Brown, were denied enrollment, and in February 1951, the NAACP filed suit.
Three years later, the Supreme Court reviewed the case, which had been joined by then with four other suits from South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and issued their landmark decision.
Burnett continued to serve as President of the Topeka NAACP chapter until 1963, dying in 1968. Roy Wilkins, the assistant secretary of the national NAACP organization at that time, sent a telegram to his wife Lena on July 26, 1968, writing, "[On] behalf of the National Association of Colored People I wish to extend our profound sympathy to you in the death of your beloved husband M. L. Burnett. Throughout the years he was in the vanguard of our fight for full citizenship rights. For more than a quarter of a century he served as President of the Topeka branch NAACP. During that period against seemingly insurmountable odds he was instrumental in initiating the school desegregation case of Linda Brown in Topeka which culminated in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision. He could have no better monument than this decision which changed the course of public education in our country."
In 1997, 100 years after Burnett's birth and on the May 17th anniversary of the decision, a special stamp cancellation was commissioned by the Kansas Committee to Commemorate Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and Bias Busters of Kansas. The cancellation noted Burnett's contribution in filing the suit that ultimately defeated segregation in this country. Proclamations from the Shawnee county commissioners, the mayor of Topeka, and the Governor of Kansas also recognized McKinley Burnett, observing that "This Nation has become a great nation because of the contributions of many people of different races and nationalities, all giving their best to make our country what it is today."
McKinley Burnett spent his life ensuring that.
Adapted from an article by John Hanna in the Los Angeles Sentinel, 19 June 1997, and from information provided by Maurita Davis, with permission of the Sentinel and Mrs. Davis.