Head of the Topeka branch of the NAACP
from 1948 to 1963
By Abby Mills, class of 2004
After a lifetime of fighting segregation,
McKinley Burnett, then head of the Topeka branch of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, played
a key role in ending segregation in American schools.
Burnett was born in Oskaloosa, Kansas, on
May 17, 1897. Discrimination was then a fact of daily life.
Burnett wanted to participate in drama in school, but would
only be offered parts as a dancer or a butler. Stereotypes
led people to assume he could take a dancing part, although
he didnt know how to dance. He also faced discrimination
as a soldier in the U.S. Army and a supply clerk at the Veterans
Administration. He wrote letters to all levels of government,
including the president of the United States, the injustices
he faced. In one such letter, he described applying for a
job as a driver for a bakery. He said the 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.
Burnett decided to take a more direct role
in the struggle for equal rights when he became head of the
Topeka branch of the NAACP in 1948. He decided to focus his
energies on desegregating public schools. In 1948, Kansas
law permitted, but did not require, elementary schools in
cities with more than 15,000 inhabitants to be racially segregated.
Eleven attempts to reverse the law had been made since 1881,
but Topekas schools remained segregated.
After two years of pressuring the Kansas
Board of Education to desegregate, Burnett decided to take
the board to court. Burnett recruited 13 families to try to
enroll their children in white schools. When they were denied,
the NAACP filed suit in 1951. Three years later, the Supreme
Court ruled that segregated schools, were unconstitutional,
even if facilities were equal. The ruling was issued May 17,
1954, Burnett's 57th birthday.
Burnett continued to lead the Topeka NAACP
until 1963. He died in 1968.
say, thank God for the