Modern civil rights began on May 17, 1954 when the Supreme Court overturned
and ruled in the case of
Brown v. Board of Education
. The Court stated that the principle of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in the public school system. It was understood that this principle should apply to all areas of public life.
In 1955 a black seamstress in Alabama, named Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man and for this protest she was arrested.
Blacks in Alabama, no longer willing to sit at the back of the bus, soon launched a bus boycott of the Montgomery bus system and chose a young minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead them in their protest. For a full year blacks refused to ride and finally, after a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, Montgomery desegregated its public transportation system. This success encouraged other blacks in the South to band together against the caste system. It also made King, who preached civil disobedience as the best way to destroy segregation, a national figure. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, moved into the forefront of the Civil Rights movement.
Other new organizations also joined in the struggle, most notably the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). However, the most significant developments resulted from the actions of ordinary individuals, chiefly students. In February 1960 four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a segregated lunch counter in a local five-and-ten and refused to leave when they were denied service. Their “sit-in,” a tiny defiance in itself, sparked a national movement. CORE rushed field workers to Greensboro, students in dozens of other southern towns and cities copied their example, until, by late 1961, over 70,000 persons had participated in sit-ins and over a hundred lunch counters had been desegregated.
In May 1961 another group of Negro and white foes of segregation organized a “freedom ride” to test the effectiveness of federal regulations prohibiting discrimination in interstate transportation. Boarding buses in Washington, they traveled across the South. In Alabama they ran into trouble: at Anniston racists set fire to their bus, in Birmingham they were assaulted by a mob. Quickly other groups of freedom riders descended on the south, many deliberately seeking arrest in order to test local segregation ordinances in the courts. Repeatedly, these actions resulted in the breaking down of legal racial barriers.
The civil rights crusade soon spread to the North. Negroes, often joined by sympathetic whites, boycotted stores that refused to hire members of their race and picketed construction sites where black workers were not employed. In New York City some militants organized “rent strikes” to call attention to the noxious condition of Harlem tenements and school boycotts to protest against the de facto segregation that existed in predominantly black neighborhoods. The nationwide impact of the “Freedom Now” crusade was highlighted in August 1963 when 200,000 persons participated in an impressive “March on Washington” to demand racial equality. The orderly nature of the immense throng that gathered before the Lincoln Memorial and the evident sincerity of all concerned had a considerable impact upon public opinion.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seemed like a major step forward, but the forces resisting change remained formidable. In the spring of 1965 peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, were brutally assaulted by state policemen wielding clubs and tossing canisters of tear gas into their ranks. Liberal opinion was shocked as never before; thousands descended upon Selma from all over the nation to demonstrate their sympathy and support for Americans blacks. Congress passed still another civil rights act, giving the federal government power to send officials into the South to register black voters. Another law, passed in 1968, took important steps in the direction of outlawing discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, and imposed stiff criminal penalties on persons found guilty of interfering with anyone’s civil rights.
Yet in spite of and to an extent because of civil rights legislation, racial conflict remained America’s most serious domestic problem. As in so many other aspects of modern life, progress itself caused new difficulties to arise. Official recognition of past injustices made Negroes more insistent that all discrimination be ended, and the very process of righting past wrongs gave them the strength to carry on their fight more vigorously.
Black militancy, building steadily during the war and postwar years, had long been ignored by the white majority, but in the middle sixties it burst forth so powerfully that the most smug and obtuse white citizens had to accept its existence.
As has been seen, the World War II record of the federal government on civil rights was mixed. A beginning was made at increasing opportunities for Negroes in the armed forces, and because of the labor shortage, black workers improved their economic position considerably. After the war, the ideological conflict with the communists provided an additional reason for concern about racial intolerance. In Asia and Africa particularly, news of the mistreatment of Negroes or other signs of color prejudice in the United States always damaged the nation’s reputation.
Nevertheless, civil rights became the most controversial political and social problem in the United States after 1945, for two quite separate reasons. Fear of communist subversion led to repressions, culminating in the excesses of McCarthyism, that alarmed liberals without quieting the fears of conservatives. And the rising aspirations of American Negroes, highlighted by their awareness that as the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation approached they were still second-class citizens, produces an increasing militancy among members of the race that shook the political structure of the country.
Truman was president from (1945-52). He tried harder than any previous president to improve the lot of the blacks. Although his own loyalty program was not always administered with sufficient regard for individual rights, he vetoed the McCarran Act, saying that it would “put the Government into the business of thought control.” However, Congress overrode the veto by a voice vote. President Truman created a Committee on Civil Rights, and he pressed for the desegregation of the armed forces. But his efforts to obtain federal antipoll tax and antilynching legislation were filibustered to death in the Senate and Congress also refused his request for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Under Eisenhower, (1953-60) while the McCarthy hysteria reached its peak and declined, the government compiled a spotty record on civil rights.
As for the blacks, Eisenhower completed the formal integration of the armed forces and appointed a Civil Rights Commission, but he was temperamentally incapable of making a frontal assault on the racial problem. All in all, civil libertarians had little to cheer about as the nation passed mid-century.
At this point, the Supreme court interjected itself into the civil rights controversy in dramatic fashion. Under pressure of litigation sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Court had been gradually undermining the “separate but equal” principle laid down in
Plessy v. Ferguson
(1896). Attention focused on the segregated public schools of the South.
In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed California’s Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Convinced that the Court must take the offensive in the cause of civil rights, he succeeded in welding his associates into a unit on the question. In 1954 an NAACP-sponsored case,
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
, came up for decision. In this case, Thurgood Marshall, leader of the NAACP campaign, directly challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine even at the elementary school level, submitting a mass of sociological evidence to show that the mere fact of segregation made equal education impossible and did serious psychological damage to both black children and white. Speaking for a unanimous Court, Warren accepted Marshall’s reasoning and specifically reversed the Plessy decision. “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Warren declared. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Recognizing the practical problems posed by this edict, the Court, in 1955, ordered the states to proceed “with all deliberate speed” in integrating their schools.
The Warren court also handed down a series of rulings protecting the civil rights of radicals.
Such actions led conservatives to denounce the Court, but the justices held their ground. In 1962 and 1964 they moved in still another direction, requiring that both state legislative and federal congressional districts be apportioned strictly n terms of population, in accordance with the principle of “one man, one vote.” In nearly all the states rural areas were heavily overrepresented, chiefly because as the trend of population toward the cities proceeded, legislators had refused to reapportion election districts. Since this resulted in the votes of some citizens having less weight than others, the Court held that their right to equal protection of the law was being violated. It applied this rule even to the upper houses of state legislatures, some of which in imitation of the United States Senate, were organized on a purely geographical basis.
Segregation became highly significant in the Court’s history. The most immediately important, however, was the school desegregation case. Despite the Brown decision, few districts in the 17 southern and border states seriously tried to integrate their schools. Within two months after the ruling, White Citizens Councils dedicated to all-out opposition were springing up all over the South. Some southern employers took reprisals against Negro jobholders who tried to enroll their children in white schools and some landlords evicted their tenants. When the school board of Clinton, Tennessee, integrated the local high school in September 1956, a mob roused by a northern fanatic rioted in protest. The school was kept open with the help of the National Guard, but the next year segregationists blew up the building with dynamite. In Virginia the governor announced a plan for “massive resistance” to integration that even denied state aid to local school systems willing to desegregate on an experimental basis. When the University of Alabama admitted a single black girl in 1956, riots broke out and university officials forced her to withdraw and then expelled her when she complained more forcefully than they deemed proper.
President Eisenhower hoped to avoid federal involvement in these conflicts. Personally, he thought real equality for Negroes could not be obtained by government edict. “I am convinced that the Supreme Court decision set back progress in the South at least fifteen years.” In 1957 events compelled Eisenhower to act. That September the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, opened Central High School to a handful of carefully picked black children. However, the governor of the state, Orville M. Faubus, called out the National Guard to prevent them from attending. Egged on by the governor, unruly crowds taunted the children and their parents. Eisenhower could not ignore this direct flouting of federal authority. He dispatched a thousand paratroopers to Little Rock and summoned 10,000 National Guardsmen to federal duty. The black children then began to attend classes, but it was necessary to maintain a small force of soldiers at Central High for the entire school year to protect them.
Such extremist resistance strengthened the determination both of Negroes and of many northern whites to make the South comply with the desegregation decision. Besides pressing a variety of cases in the federal courts, leaders of the movement sought to bring internal pressure on the southern states by conducting a drive to win political power for southern blacks, long systematically excluded from the polls. In September 1957 Congress established a Civil Rights Commission with broad investigatory powers and a new Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice. This law also authorized the attorney general to obtain injunctions to stop southern registrars and election officials from interfering with Negroes seeking to register and vote.
President Kennedy’s original approach to the civil rights problem was to make full use of existing laws rather than to seek new legislation. Under the vigorous direction of his brother Robert, the Justice Department acted to force the desegregation of interstate transportation facilities in the South, to compel southern election officials to obey civil rights legislation, and to override resistance to school integration. In 1962, when Mississippi authorities, led by Governor Ross Barnett himself, blocked the admission of a Negro student, James H. Meredith, to the University of Mississippi, President Kennedy called the Mississippi National Guard to federal duty and, despite bloody riots, made the university accept the student.
But progress remained painfully slow. The new aggressiveness of blacks caused alarm in some quarters in the North and there was ominous talk of a “white backlash.” The belief that all citizens should be guaranteed the basic civil rights was growing steadily stronger. In 1961 the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving residents of the District of Columbia the suffrage in Presidential elections. Three years later the Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawed state poll taxes in federal elections, a device traditionally employed to keep poor Negroes from voting in the South. After Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in all places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters. It also empowered the attorney general to bring suits on behalf of individuals to speed school desegregation and strengthened his hand still further in the campaign to register Negro voters. Racial discrimination by both employers and unions was also declared illegal, and federal agencies were authorized to withhold funds from state-administered programs that failed to treat blacks and whites equally.
The Supreme Court promptly upheld the constitutionality of this law and the southern reaction, while anything but enthusiastic, was much less violent than many observers had feared. By the end of 1964 the public accommodations section was being enforced in some southern cities. At the end of the 1963-64 school year, only half the black children in the border states and barely one percent of the 2.84 million in the states of the old Confederacy were attending white schools. Local customs died hard. In many communities, for example, traveling blacks mixed with whites in restaurants and bus terminals, but local Negroes kept to themselves, partly out of fear, partly for lack of money, partly through choice. Fear also kept many from appearing before the new federal registrars. “Too many Negroes are not desegregated mentally yet,” one Nashville clergyman explained.
The Negro struggle for equality influenced and was paralleled by that of Mexican Americans, principally in the southwestern states. The fortunes of
, as the Spanish-speaking community in the Southwest called itself, were affected by the same forces that affected blacks. During both World Wars the labor shortage led to improvement of their lot; during bad times, especially during the Great Depression, they were the first to suffer. About half a million were either deported or “persuaded” to return to Mexico during the 1930s. In general, Mexican Americans were underpaid, badly housed, and subject to all sorts of discrimination. At the same time their labor was badly needed in may areas. Both during World War II and again between 1948 and 1965 federal legislation encouraged the importation of farm workers from Mexico, and may other Mexicans entered the country illegally. The latter were know as
or “wetbacks,” because they often slipped across the order by swimming the Rio Grande.
Spanish-speaking residents of the Southwest had been traditionally apolitical and submissive; they tended to accept their fate with resignation, to mind their own business, not to “make trouble.” But in the early 1960s a new spirit of resistance arose. Leaders of the new movement called themselves Chicanos, possibly shortened form of the word
, a Mexican. The Chicanos demand better schools for their children and easier access to higher education. They urged their fellows to take pride in their traditions and culture, to demand their legal and human rights, to organize themselves politically. As with the blacks, the dominant middle-class majority adjusted itself to Chicano demands grudgingly and very slowly. Although many people agree with the concepts, principles, and ideas behind civil rights and civil liberties, the government and some people in society will try to restrict those rights. Because civil rights have been threatened throughout history laws have been passed and implemented to protect them. Much remained to be done before true racial equality can be achieved in the United States.