AT THE National Museum of American History, kids can step into a divided classroom and choose: neat desk or wooden plank, smooth linoleum or splintery floor, decorated blackboard or bare walls. But as accompanying photos and a video make clear, youngsters had no choice in 1950s America. White children learned in the first type of school, black and other minority children in the second. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court called for change when it struck down public school segregation. Opening Saturday, "Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education" traces the path that led to the landmark decision and celebrates its 50th anniversary.

At a preview last week, co-curators Harry Rubenstein and Alonzo Smith anticipated public reaction to the exhibit. "A lot of kids will probably be surprised that such unfair [treatment] ever existed," Rubenstein said. "But many grown-ups will have a personal connection," added Smith, 63, who attended black segregated schools in Washington. "This was history that happened in our lifetime."

The exhibit opens and closes with two robes that emphasize the long, hard road to social justice. At the entrance, visitors are confronted with the white garments of the Ku Klux Klan and other images of segregated America, including Jim Crow signs and the aforementioned classrooms. At the exit stands Thurgood Marshall's black Supreme Court robe. While signaling its owner's accomplishments -- Brown lawyer, first African American justice -- the robe also symbolizes changes wrought by the landmark case.

Through the exhibit's six sections, visitors of all ages learn of years of careful strategizing to overcome segregation. Key to this effort were Howard University Law School, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and civil rights lawyers Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. Especially compelling, though, are the stories of five communities that challenged school segregation. Collectively, their cases became known as Brown v. Board of Education, but they arose in areas as different -- yet Jim Crow-identified -- as rural South Carolina, Virginia tobacco country and urban Topeka, Kan.

To bring these stories to life, Rubenstein and Smith tracked down artifacts from across the country. "Much of this material had never been gathered before," said Smith, who spoke of the generosity of families loaning precious memorabilia. On view is a pennant from the Farmville, Va., high school where Barbara Johns, a teenager, organized a student strike for a better school. A photo of Linda Brown and her family and another of six smiling youngsters, all children of plaintiffs, bear testimony to the young people behind the historical moment. Here, too, is the dining-room table belonging to Lucinda Todd, secretary of the NAACP's Topeka chapter, where Brown first took shape.

Passing between columns reflective of the Supreme Court, visitors can stand before a huge judge's desk and read, on legal pads, a simplified version of the arguments made by segregationists and integrationists. Behind the desk runs a timeline of the case, along with Chief Justice Earl Warren's signature homburg hat and the slip opinion (a printed copy of the decision) wherein the Supreme Court declared "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," thus overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine laid in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.

Historic footage on a period TV shows what happened next. Spot interviews with young blacks and whites reveal mixed reactions: Southern politicians loudly protest; African American students enter white schools under protection from the National Guard. From here, the exhibit opens out to explore how Brown helped propel the civil rights movement and inspire other minority groups to push for social change. On view is the Woolworth's counter from Greensboro, N.C., the focus of a six-month-long sit-in by blacks protesting segregated dining facilities in 1960.

The exhibit works against the temptation to see Brown as just a long-ago historical moment by ending with a video examining its legacy. Calling the Supreme Court decision "a vision of a future we hoped would exist," various civil rights leaders and prominent officials invite viewers to reflect on today's society. Said co-curator Smith: "We hoped kids and adults might start looking around and asking: What still needs to be done [to integrate society]? What might I do to change things?"

To provide a forum for such questions, the museum plans a broad educational program, including a resource guide for grades 4 to 12. At the Web site, visitors can take a virtual tour of the exhibit, record stories of their community, mention their ideas for change and learn how to participate Wednesday in a free, nationwide, school-based satellite and Internet broadcast, during which students can call in with comments and questions.

Why might the exhibit and outreach program prove especially appealing to kids? Amy Bartow-Melia, deputy assistant director for education at the museum, commented on the case's drama, familiar setting and young heroes. "Brown revolved around schools, the world in which children are immersed," she said. "Brown is a story of fairness and of courage -- a story of children, of parents and lawyers and everyday people who stood up and said, 'This isn't fair and I need to do something.' "

SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL: BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION -- Saturday through May 30, 2005, on first floor of the National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle). 202-633-1000 or 202-357-1729 (TTY). Open daily 10 to 5:30; closed Dec. 25. Free. The Web site includes information on educational resource guides, virtual tours and opportunities to record thoughts about Brown and its legacy. Teachers can register at the Web site for Wednesday's satellite and Internet broadcast in the schools.

Special Programs

The following are suitable for ages 12 and up. Check for additional programs and family events in the coming year. Free unless otherwise noted.

Saturday from noon to 4 -- Special music, docent-guided tours and films celebrate the exhibit opening. The documentaries "Simple Justice" and "With All Deliberate Speed: The Legacy of Brown v. Board" will be introduced by filmmakers Avon Kirkland and Sharon Baker. Ages 12 and up. Taylor Gallery, first floor. First come, first served.

Monday at 12:30 -- Jack Greenberg, one of the attorneys who argued Brown before the Supreme Court, participates in a conversation moderated by NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and signs his book "Crusaders in the Courts: Legal Battles of the Civil Rights Movement." Ages 14 and up. Reception Suite.

June 19 at 7 -- Viewing of the film "February One," about the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-ins and their impact on the city and the civil rights movement, is followed by a discussion with Franklin McCain, one of the four young men who led the demonstration. Ages 12 and up. Carmichael Auditorium.

Suggested Reading

Amy Bartow-Melia, deputy assistant director for education, suggested the following books for youngsters interested in issues related to the exhibit.

"GOIN' SOMEPLACE SPECIAL," by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (fiction for ages 4 to 10, Atheneum, 2001, $16).

"REMEMBER: THE JOURNEY TO SCHOOL INTEGRATION," by Toni Morrison (nonfiction for ages 10 and up, Houghton Mifflin, 2004, $18).

"THE STORY OF RUBY BRIDGES," by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford (fiction for ages 3 to 8, Scholastic, 1995, $16.95).

Nettie Hunt and daughter Nikie sit on the steps of the Supreme Court with a 1954 newspaper announcing the decision.The new exhibit features the lunch counter from the Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., where blacks staged sit-ins in 1960.