Apr 10, 2024 - News

Play to honor students who integrated schools after Brown ruling

A stage rehearsal for Courageous Steps: Bridging the Divide for Equality

Actress and activist Elisabeth Williams-Omilami (center) and Nikki Toombs (right) coach a young student during rehearsal for "Courageous Steps: Bridging the Divide for Equality." Photo: Larsen Kennedy

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights will host a play next week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Why it matters: The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on May 17, 1954 overturned the separate but equal doctrine in public schools by ruling that segregation based on race was unconstitutional.

  • Reality check: Despite its mandate to integrate, many school districts, particularly across the South, refused to do so until well into the 1970s.

The latest: "Courageous Steps: Bridging the Divide for Equality" premieres at 6pm on April 17 at The Eastern and is part of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights' 10th anniversary celebration.

Zoom in: For Keisha Lewis, the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling is personal for her family. Her mother, Linda Clonts, was one of 13 students who integrated McEachern High School more than 10 years later on Sept. 7, 1965.

  • Before that, her mother, who lived in Powder Springs, attended Lemon Street High School in Marietta, which at the time was the only high school for Black students in Cobb County.

During that first week, the students were taken to school by bus but had to walk home.

  • Lewis tells Axios that her mother wasn't allowed to ask questions during class and that she was harassed.
  • Her locker was stuffed with chalk, and someone placed a sign with a racial slur on her back.
  • "She ended up dropping out [because] it was just too much tension," she said. "She said it went on for months."

Zoom out: The multimedia play, which features song, dance and dialogue, will honor trailblazers who integrated schools across the Deep South, including Clonts as well as:

  • Cheryl Brown Henderson, the daughter of one of the 12 plaintiffs in the Brown case.
  • James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi.

What they're saying: Nikki Toombs, the Atlanta playwright who created the play, tells Axios that she hopes the production will show that the risks those students took when they integrated their school were not in vain.

  • "We also want to have the audience walk away with the reminder that yes, your great work, your merit may have gotten you where you are, but we cannot abandon the idea that the courageous steps of others put us in a position where we can elevate and be in institutions of choice," she said.

Case in point: Lewis tells Axios that she was able to get her MBA and her sister was able to obtain her doctorate because of the "work that these pioneers and my mother put in to ensure that we could get this type of education."

  • "It has been, for me, a journey…because everything that has happened with my mother has led me to be where I am today," she said.

If you go: Tickets for this one-night-only play can be purchased online.

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