When Linda Brown was 7 and growing up in Topeka, Kansas, a half-century ago, here's how she got to school: She walked six blocks to meet a bus that drove her two miles across town.

The trip took more than an hour.

She would have rather gone to the school a few blocks from home, where her white friends went, but black kids were not allowed there. By custom and by law in much of the country then, blacks and whites did not mix. This was called segregation.

Signs reading "Whites Only" and "Colored" hung over public water fountains and restroom doors in the South. Blacks and whites also were separated on streetcars, buses and railroads, and in hotels, restaurants, theaters, cemeteries and parks.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had laws requiring or permitting separate schools for blacks and whites. Those for black students often were shacks with wood stoves and outhouses.

A giant step toward changing this was taken 50 years ago Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was illegal. The case is known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

It's where Linda Brown entered the history books.

Her parents (and those of other black children in Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and the District) agreed to let lawyers argue in court that separate schools were bad for their children. The four state lawsuits were combined under one name, Brown. (For legal reasons, the D.C. case went forward by itself.)

The Supreme Court ruled in both cases on May 17, 1954. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" even if they are physically the same, the court said. Separating students by race pinned a "badge of inferiority" on black children that slowed their development, the justices said.

The Brown decision overturned an 1896 court ruling that had permitted "separate but equal" public facilities. But Brown didn't bring about change overnight. Some states resisted integration for a long while. Ten years after Brown, 98 percent of black children in the South were still in all-black schools.

Civil rights workers in the 1950s and '60s labored hard for racial equality, not only in education, but in health care, jobs and housing. Their work continues today because, despite some changes, blacks are not always treated the same as whites. (See "Has It Worked?")

So why is Brown considered perhaps the most important court ruling of the 20th century?

The court's words that day helped knock down centuries of laws based on the belief that blacks were not as good as whites. Although Brown applied only to public education, it sent a message of hope that, someday, racial equality would extend to all areas of life.

-- Fern Shen

Nettie Hunt explains to her daughter Nickie the meaning of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling.Linda Brown in 1952.