In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld state racial segregation laws based on the "separate but equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court ruled that making a legal distinction between races did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment forbidding involuntary servitude. In addition, the Court did not feel that Plessy violated the spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment, since no rights were to be denied black citizens. Laws requiring the separation of races, the Court declared, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race.
During the next five decades, blacks and whites went to separate schools, ate at separate restaurants, rode on separate buses, and drank from separate water fountains. Although the legality of segregation was based on a separate but equal doctrine, the actual facilities provided to blacks were rarely of the same quality of standard as those provided for whites. In the 1930's, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine in the courts. Early victories for the NAACP included court rulings that insisted that facilities, primarily black schools, be upgraded to be comparable to white schools.
The first real challenge to the constitutionality of state segregation laws came in 1938 when a black student, Lloyd Gaines, was denied admission to the Missouri School of Law. Although the Court affirmed Plessy (6-2) and did not require the school to accept Gaines, they did rule that the University had to pay for blacks to go to law school out of state or build a facility similar to that provided for white students. In 1950, a court rejected the State of Texas' intention to send black law students to a separate and inferior law school and ordered the University of Texas and other similar state universities to admit black students to their graduate programs.
As court rulings began to challenge school segregation, much of the American public, particularly residents of southern states, remained opposed to allowing black students into white schools. Feelings among blacks that they remained "second-class citizens" created frustration and disillusionment within the black population.
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court. Warren hoped to make the issue of race and civil rights a referendum for the Court. He immediately began persuading other justices that the Court should take a leading role in civil rights reform. Soon after Warren took the bench, an NAACP-sponsored case came before the Court. Brown v. Board of Education provided a mechanism through which the Court could take a stand on civil rights.
The case centered on Linda Brown, who lived with her family in Topeka, Kansas. The Topeka Board of Education had denied Brown admittance to an all-white school. Her father, a well-respected citizen, filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education hoping to force the issue of segregation in schools.
Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's legal director, argued before the Court on behalf of Brown. Marshall argued that a "separate but equal" philosophy violated the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Even if facilities were equal in quality, Marshall argued, the mere presence of segregation made equal education impossible and caused irrevocable harm to both black and white children.
In the unanimous decision delivered on May 17, 1954, the Court rejected the Plessy doctrine of separate but equal. Writing for the Court, Warren declared that "separate educational facilities" were "inherently unequal" because the intangible inequalities of separation deprived black students of equal protection under the law. One year later, after further discussion among the justices, they ruled that the integration of schools must go forward "with all deliberate speed."
Segregationists reacted to the Court's ruling with disgust and open calls for opposition, organizing "massive resistance" to the idea of school integration. President Eisenhower, shocked by the Court's ruling, said that the ruling must be obeyed but did little to halt the growing protests among Southerners. State legislatures in the south passed more than 450 laws and resolutions aimed at preventing the enforcement of the Brown decision. Many states diverted public money to establish private whites-only schools where the Court's order could not be implemented as easily. In 1956, the Virginia state legislature cut funds for integrated schools in an effort to stall the growing movement. Critics decried the legislative tendencies of the Warren Court toward expanding rights for black Americans, but proponents pointed to the necessity to uphold the Constitutional rights which Congress failed to enforce.
The resistance measures were effective. Only 700 of 10,000 school districts in the south had desegregated or were in the process of desegregation by the end of 1956. Southern protests, coupled with an uncertain American public, set the stage for a battle that would rage in courtrooms, in schools, and on the streets during the 1960's.
Frustration of some Americans over the policy of segregation and resistance by other Americans to integration eventually gave rise to the acts of civil disobedience that would mark the beginning of the civil rights movement. In demonstration after demonstration one or more individuals would inspire others to take a stand against a system based on prejudice.
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, one small act of disobedience helped launch a movement and give rise to its leader. While seated in the back of a bus, which was the law at the time for black commuters, one passenger was asked to give up her seat during a busy Friday evening so that a white passenger could sit down. Refusing to give up her seat, Rosa Parks, a department store seamstress and also the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, was threatened with arrest. She simply responded, "you may do that."
The day after Parks was arrested, black community leaders gathered together at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The charismatic pastor of the church was the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped to organize a citywide protest in response to the arrest of Parks. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, King earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at Boston University. An eloquent speaker and a natural leader, King's ability to rally people behind his message of nonviolent resistance to bring about change quickly associated him with the civil rights movement. He said, "We must use the weapon of love," which was a reference to his belief in the attainment of goals without resorting to violence. His civil disobedience ideas reflected those of Mohandas Gandhi, who had used economic tactics to slowly gain Indian independence from England.
King and other community leaders organized a boycott of the Montgomery public transportation system. Their strategy proved effective because a substantial majority of bus patrons were African American. Many blacks simply started walking, and to relieve the burden on those who could not walk to their destination, black taxi owners lowered their rates significantly. When Montgomery city leaders declared the lowered taxi fares were illegal, carpools were organized. Even though only approximately 350 African Americans owned cars and there were 10,000 commuters, those who did readily offered their assistance.
In an effort to end the boycott, the city authorities arrested over 100 of the boycott's leaders. However, instead of breaking the boycott, the arrests focused national attention on Montgomery, and people across the country began lending money to support the protesters. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for well over a year, finally ending when the Supreme Court let stand a lower court's decision that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Inspired by the success of the bus boycott, King and his associates founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization devoted to contesting segregation.
Despite the early victory, the civil rights movement would soon face more challenges. In September of the 1957, another southern city became a segregation battleground. Just weeks after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Arkansas's governor, Orval Faubus, called on the National Guard to prevent nine black high school students from enrolling at Little Rock's Central High School. President Eisenhower met with the governor to convince him to allow the students to enroll, but Faubus would not relent.
It took a court order to remove the National Guard before Faubus would allow the black students access to the school. When the nine students returned to the school to register, a white mob began to riot in protest against their enrollment. The situation became so serious that the black students had to be taken away from the school for their own safety. To end the situation, Eisenhower sent 1,000 federal troops to Little Rock and brought the Arkansas National Guard under federal control. The troops remained at the school for the rest of the year to ensure the safety of both the students and the school.
The following school year, governor Faubus ordered all public high schools in Little Rock closed rather than face integration. Most white students were able to attended private schools, but most black students had no reasonable educational option. It was not until August of 1959 that the public school system was forced to reopen following another Supreme Court ruling.
Although segregationists continued their attempts to halt integration, like the Virginia legislature's passage of a law that cut funding from integrated schools, state and federal courts continually found such laws unconstitutional. School integration, however, was only one of many divisive racial issues, and the courts were only one means to help bring about change.
A more spontaneous fight against desegregation started on February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four black college freshmen entered a whites-only Woolworth's lunch counter and demanded service. The students were refused, but they did not leave the establishment. Instead they sat for the rest of the day in the restaurant in protest. The following day, the four students returned with 19 fellow classmates. On the third day, 85 students joined the sit-in, and by the end of the week approximately 1,000 were taking part. Although they were still denied service, the sit-in continued and stimulated new variations on peaceful disobedience. Soon six towns in the state experienced their own sit-ins, and within two months 54 cities across nine states were witness to the peaceful protests.
The Greensboro sit-ins led to "kneel-ins" at discriminatory churches, "read-ins" at whites-only libraries, and "wade-ins" at segregated swimming pools. Change was being coerced, and King's SCLC was helping spread and organize the once spontaneous protests. Despite the pressure applied against the merchants in Greensboro, they held out for six months before giving in to the protesters' wishes.
While campaigning for the White House in 1960, John F. Kennedy made the pledge that civil rights would take center stage during his presidency. Kennedy guaranteed that discriminatory practices in housing would be done away with at the start of his term "with a stroke of a pen." Once in office, the results of his pledge were much less dramatic. In fact, the process took nearly two years to complete; all the while civil rights groups were sending pens to the White House to protest Kennedy's inaction.
The reason Kennedy did not take immediate action on his civil rights concerns was his need for legislative support, specifically from southern delegates, for other programs on his agenda such as medical and educational reform. Kennedy was reluctant to press too hard on any divisive issue that would jeopardize support for the rest of his agenda, which he believed would benefit the African American community as much as civil rights legislation.
Kennedy's reluctance to take a direct approach on civil rights issues would slowly change as his presidency witnessed a string of violent events. Continuing with the success of the sit-ins in 1960, civil rights groups formed the Freedom Riders, an assembly of individuals that traveled to segregated establishments to promote equal treatment. On May 14, 1961, a Freedom Riders' bus was burned outside of Anniston, Alabama. A riot against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, left a personal representative of the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, nearly beaten to death. These events led President Kennedy to believe that southern authorities were going to do very little to stop the violence, so he order federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders.
In October of 1962, the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, went against a court ruling that the University of Mississippi must allow a black student named James Meredith to enroll. To enforce the court's order, Robert Kennedy had federal marshals sent to Mississippi. The arrival of the marshals was met with violent protest, which led to an assault on the marshals by a white mob. Federal troops were then sent to control the situation, but only after two people were dead and many injured was Meredith allowed to register at the University of Mississippi.
As Kennedy became more active in his support of the civil rights movement, he began to associate with the movement's leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. In light of sudden allegations that some of King's advisors had ties to communism, Kennedy was concerned these associations would reflect poorly on his administration. The Attorney General had the FBI wiretap King's phones to monitor his communications and make sure that King's activities would not embarrass the White House. This cautious relationship, however, did not dissuade the President from greater public support for civil rights. Both the President and the Attorney General encouraged civil rights organizations to develop the Voter Education Project, which was designed to help register black southern voters. President Kennedy even used his influence to persuade several private foundations to contribute financial support to the project.
King focused his efforts to combat segregation on the city of Birmingham, Alabama, considered to be the largest segregated city in the nation. Although African American's made up almost half of Birmingham's population, only 15 percent were registered voters. In the spring of 1963, city authorities challenged a group of peaceful demonstrators, including King, with a show of force. Using tear gas, attack dogs, electric cattle prods, and fire hoses, the police brutally assailed the protesters. King even told his fellow organizers, "some of us sitting here would not come back alive." The nation and the world watched in horror as peaceful marchers were ruthlessly attacked. King was arrested and incarcerated during the demonstrations, and while locked up he wrote his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." The letter was a rousing argument for the use of nonviolent strategies to promote change.
After observing the events in Birmingham, on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy delivered a television address announcing that the situation was a "moral issue." He publicly pledged that his administration would focus on finding a solution to what was now nothing less than a crisis. His speech emphasized the call for new civil right legislation to protect African Americans.
Taking Kennedy's speech to heart, civil rights organizers began to commit resources to stage a massive demonstration in Washington D.C. It had become increasingly evident that a show of support for new civil rights measures was needed, especially when early drafts of Kennedy's proposed legislation encountered congressional resistance. With the help of A. Philip Randolph, who started the "March on Washington" movement, King led an audience of 250,000 singing "We Shall Overcome" from the Mall in Washington D.C. to the Lincoln Memorial. Held on August 28, 1963, this was the largest civil rights demonstration the country had ever seen. Seeking better jobs, an end to segregation, and support for Kennedy's civil rights bill, the 1963 March on Washington is considered the culmination of the civil rights movement. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his most memorable address—his "I Have a Dream" speech. This one speech summarized the hopes of all oppressed people, and to this day remains one of the most recognizable and powerful speeches in American history.
However impressive the March on Washington was, turmoil over the nation toward equal rights would continue. Attitudes could not be changed overnight, as was shockingly clear only two weeks after King's poignant speech. Arriving early for Sunday school, four young black girls were killed by a bomb blast at their Birmingham, Alabama, church. Kennedy himself would not live long enough to sign his proposed civil rights bill into law. He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
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