The Visionary Behind Brown v. Board

McKinley Langford Burnett 

McKinley Langford Burnett worked tirelessly in the cause of civil rights for African Americans.   From 1948 to 1963 Burnett served as President of the Topeka Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  His vision and personal effort resulted in what would become the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) et. al.  The Brown decision is considered the signature accomplishment of the NAACP.

McKinley Burnett was born January 9, 1897, in Oskaloosa, Kansas.  Growing up in a small town, with integrated neighborhoods and schools, Burnett had zero tolerance for racial segregation.  As an adult he moved to Topeka, where he married Lena Jones.  Their union produced five children.  Having a family of his own motivated him to vigorously pursue equal rights for African Americans in Topeka and beyond.   He was courageous when experiencing tension on his job because of his stance against injustice and racial segregation.  He worked in the Santa Fe Shops for thirteen years and part time at a local clothing store.  Burnett went on to work for a federal government supply depot, finally landing a job as a stock clerk for the local Veterans Hospital.

At the age of fifty-two McKinley Burnett was elected President of the Topeka Chapter of the NAACP.  In an environment of racial segregation, concern about job security kept many African Americans from joining the organization.  This left Burnett presiding over meetings of only a dozen or so people. In the face of waning community support he pressed on with encouragement of the previous NAACP President Daniel Sawyer.

His central agenda for the Topeka NAACP was to push for racially integrated public schools, challenging a law enacted by the Kansas Legislature in 1879, which permitted “First Class Cities” defined as those with  populations of 15,000 or more to operate dual systems of education at the elementary level, segregating African American and white students.  For a period of two years from 1948 to 1950, McKinley Burnett employed a strategy of attending every meeting of the Topeka Board of Education, signing up to make remarks during the public comment period.  At one of their meetings he presented the School Board with a petition signed by 1,500 people.  The petition was intended to “appeal to reason” and convince the Board of Education to exercise its legal option of ending racial segregation in Topeka elementary schools.

It has been said that May of 1950 was Burnett’s last attempt to win over the Topeka Board of Education.  He reportedly told the School Board, “You have had two years now to prepare for this.”  His words were not hollow.   His went on to organize and challenge their refusal, by leading the Topeka NAACP in filing legal action against the Topeka Board of Education.

Burnett suffered from Leukemia.  In spite of his grave condition, he worked unceasingly to plan and strategize with the Topeka NAACP legal redress committee composed of attorneys Charles Bledsoe, John and Charles Scott and assisted by chapter secretary and former teacher Lucinda Todd.  His first order of business was to recruit parents with elementary aged children to serve as plaintiffs.  Mrs. Lucinda Todd became the first to volunteer for what would become a roster of 13 parent plaintiffs representing a total of 20 children.  

Although temporarily bedridden by the time the case was filed on February 28, 1951, McKinley Burnett had already made a lasting contribution to the struggle for civil rights.  Upon its filing the case become known for the sole male parent on the plaintiff roster, Oliver L. Brown.  

Burnett attended all federal district court hearings of their case, which were ironically presided over by Judge Walter Huxman, a former Kansas Governor.  Burnett followed the proceedings and even attended hearings when the Topeka NAACP case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  The high court consolidated the Topeka case with similar cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.  This group of five cases were argued together and decided under the heading of the Kansas case, Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS), et. al.

In addition to his role in bringing about the Brown case, Burnett was a devout member of the Capitol City Community Church of God and together with his wife cared for numerous foster children.

McKinley Langford Burnett died in 1968.  His wife is also deceased.  They are survived by a son Marquis Burnett and a daughter Maurita Burnett Canady both residing in Topeka.  McKinley Burnett’s daughter for decades worked to call attention to her father’s history making actions and to preserve his legacy.  


(An oral history transcript of his nephew, the late Onan Burnett who was an Associate Superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, is archived in the Brown Foundation Oral History Collection, which is housed at the Kansas State Historical Society, Kansas Research Center.  The Brown Foundation, in the late 1990s, with generous support from Hallmark Card hired Doctoral students as researchers to interview over 80 individuals involved in and immediately impacted by Brown v. Board of Education.)