African-American Civil Rights Movement (1896–1954)

African-American Civil Rights Movement (1896–1954)

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States has been a long, primarily nonviolent struggle to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. The movement has had a lasting impact on United States society, in its tactics, the increased social and legal acceptance of civil rights, and in its exposure of the prevalence and cost of racism.

The American Civil Rights movement has been made up of many movements. The term usually refers to the political struggles and reform movements between 1945 and 1970 to end discrimination against African Americans and to end legal racial segregation, especially in the U.S. South.

This article focuses on an earlier phase of the struggle. Two United States Supreme Court decisions—"Plessy v. Ferguson", ussc|163|537|1896, which upheld "separate but equal" racial segregation as constitutional doctrine, and "Brown v. Board of Education", ussc|347|483|1954 which overturned "Plessy"— serve as milestones. This was an era of stops and starts, in which some movements, such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, achieved great success but left little lasting legacy, while others, such as the NAACP's painstaking legal assault on state-sponsored segregation, achieved modest results in its early years but made steady progress on voter rights and gradually built to a key victory in "Brown v. Board of Education".

After the Civil War, the U. S. expanded the legal rights of African Americans. Congress passed, and enough states ratified, an amendment ending slavery in 1865—the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment only outlawed slavery; it did not provide equal rights, nor citizenship. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified by the states, granting African Americans citizenship. Black persons born in the U. S. were extended equal protection under the laws of the Constitution. The 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870), which stated that race could not be used as a condition to deprive men of the ability to vote. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), Northern troops occupied the South. Together with the Freedmen's Bureau, they tried to administer and enforce the new constitutional amendments. Many black leaders were elected to local and state offices, and others organized community groups.

Reconstruction ended following the Compromise of 1877 between Northern and Southern white elites. In exchange for deciding the contentious Presidential election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, supported by Northern states, over his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, the compromise called for the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South. This followed violence and fraud in southern elections in 1876, which had reduced black voter turnout and enabled Southern white Democrats to regain power in state legislatures across the South. The compromise and withdrawal of Federal troops meant that white Democrats had more freedom to impose and enforce discriminatory practices. Many African Americans responded to the withdrawal of federal troops by leaving the South in what is known as the Kansas Exodus of 1879.

The Radical Republicans, who spearheaded Reconstruction, had attempted to eliminate both governmental and private discrimination by legislation. That effort was largely ended by the Supreme Court's decision in the Civil Rights Cases, ussc|109|3|1883, in which the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress power to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals or businesses.

Key Events


The Supreme Court's decision in "Plessy v. Ferguson" (1896) upheld state-mandated discrimination in public transportation under the "separate but equal" doctrine. While in the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to overturn state statutes that disfranchised African Americans, as in "Guinn v. United States" (1915), with "Plessy", it upheld segregation that Southern states enforced in nearly every other sphere of public and private life.

As Justice Harlan, the only member of the Court to dissent from the decision, predicted::If a state can prescribe, as a rule of civil conduct, that whites and blacks shall not travel as passengers in the same railroad coach, why may it not so regulate the use of the streets of its cities and towns as to compel white citizens to keep on one side of a street, and black citizens to keep on the other? Why may it not, upon like grounds, punish whites and blacks who ride together in street cars or in open vehicles on a public road or street? . . . .

The Court soon extended "Plessy" to uphold segregated schools. In "Berea College v. Kentucky", ussc|211|45|1908, the Court upheld a Kentucky statute that barred Berea College, a private institution, from teaching both black and white students in an integrated setting. Many states, particularly in the South, took "Plessy" and "Berea" as blanket approval for restrictive laws, generally known as "Jim Crow laws", that created second-class status for African-Americans.

In many cities and towns, African-Americans were not allowed to share a taxi with whites or enter a building through the same entrance. They had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, attend separate schools, be buried in separate cemeteries and even swear on separate Bibles. They were excluded from restaurants and public libraries. Many parks barred them with signs that read "Negroes and dogs not allowed." One municipal zoo went so far as to list separate visiting hours.

The etiquette of racial segregation was even harsher, particularly in the South. African Americans were expected to step aside to let a white person pass, and black men dared not look any white woman in the eye. Black men and women were addressed as "Tom" or "Jane", but rarely as "Mr." or "Miss" or "Mrs." Whites referred to black men of any age as "boy" and a black woman as "girl"; both often were called by labels such as "nigger" or "colored."

Less formal social segregation in the North began to yield to change.

Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut, 1947

Jackie Robinson was a sports pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackie Robinson is most well known for becoming the first African American to play professional sports in the major leagues. He is not often recognized as one of earliest public figures in the Civil Rights Movement. He debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers of Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947. Jackie Robinson's first major league game came one year before the U.S. Army was integrated, seven years before "Brown v. Board of Education", eight years before Rosa Parks, and before Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Civil Rights Movement. Jackie Robinson stepped into the spotlight before many of the most notable people in the Civil Rights Movement history. Every day he played, he was an example and role model for countless children and youths.


Opponents of black civil rights used economic reprisals and sometimes violence in the 1880s to discourage blacks from registering to vote. By the turn of the century, white-dominated Southern legislatures disfranchised nearly all age-eligible African American voters through a combination of statute and constitutional provisions. While requirements applied to all citizens, in practice, they were targeted at blacks and poor whites (and Mexican Americans in Texas), and subjectively administered. The feature "Turnout in Presidential and Midterm Elections" at this University of Texas website devoted to politics, shows the drastic drop in voting as these provisions took effect in Southern states compared to the rest of the US, and also the longevity of the measures. []

Mississippi was the first state to have such constitutional provisions, such as poll taxes, literacy tests (which depended on subjective by white registrars), and complicated record keeping to establish residency, litigated before the Supreme Court. In 1898 the Court upheld the state, in "Williams v. Mississippi". Other Southern states quickly adopted the "Mississippi plan", and from 1890–1908, ten states adopted new constitutions with provisions to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites. States continued to disfranchise these groups for decades. Blacks were most adversely affected, as in many states black voter turnout dropped to zero. Poor whites were also disfranchised. In Alabama, for instance, by 1941, 600,000 poor whites had been disfranchised, and 520,000 blacks. [Glenn Feldman, "The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama", Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004, p. 136]

It was not until the 20th century that litigation by African Americans on such provisions began to meet some success before the Supreme Court. In 1915 in "Guinn v. United States", the Court declared Oklahoma's grandfather clause, to be unconstitutional. Although the decision affected all states that used the grandfather clause, state legislatures quickly devised new devices to continue disfranchisement. Each provision or statute had to be litigated separately.

One device which the Democratic Party began to use more widely in Southern states in the early 20th century was the white primary, which served for decades to disfranchise the few blacks who managed to get past barriers of voter registration. Barring blacks from voting in the Democratic Party primaries meant they had no chance to vote in the only competitive contests. White primaries were not struck down by the Supreme Court until "Smith v. Allwright" in 1944.

Criminal law and lynching

In 1880, the United States Supreme Court ruled in "Strauder v. West Virginia", ussc|100|303|1880 that African Americans could not be excluded from juries. The late 19th century disfranchisement of blacks in the South, however, meant that blacks were routinely barred from jury service, as it was reserved for voters only. This left them at the mercy of a white justice system arrayed against them. In some states, particularly Alabama, the state used the criminal justice system to reestablish a form of peonage in the form of the convict-lease system. The state sentenced black males to years of imprisonment, which they spent working without pay. The state leased prisoners to private employers, such as Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation, which paid the state for their labor. Because the state made money, the system created incentives for the jailing of more men, who were disproportionately black. It also created a system in which treatment of prisoners received little oversight.

Extra-judicial punishment was even more brutal. During the last decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, white vigilantes lynched thousands of black males, sometimes with the overt assistance of state officials, mostly within the South. No whites were charged with crimes in any of those massacres. Whites were, in fact, so confident of their immunity from prosecution for lynching that they not only photographed the victims, but made postcards out of the pictures.

The Ku Klux Klan, which had largely disappeared after a brief violent career in the early years of Reconstruction, reappeared in 1915. It grew mostly in industrializing cities of the South and Midwest that underwent the most rapid growth from 1910-1930. Social instability contributed to racial tensions from severe competition for jobs and housing. People joined KKK groups who were anxious about their place in American society, as cities were rapidly changed by a combination of industrialization, migration of blacks and whites from the rural South, and waves of increased immigration from mostly rural southern and eastern Europe. [Kenneth T. Jackson, "The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930", New York: Oxford University Press, 1967; reprint, Chicago: Elephant Paperback, 1992, pp.242-243]

Initially the KKK presented itself as another fraternal organization devoted to betterment of its members. The KKK's revival was inspired in part by the movie "Birth of a Nation", which glorified the earlier Klan and dramatized the racist stereotypes concerning blacks of that era. The Klan focused on political mobilization, which allowed it to gain power in states such as Indiana, on a platform that combined racism with anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-union rhetoric, but also supported lynching. It reached its peak of membership and influence about 1925, declining rapidly afterward as opponents mobilized. [Kenneth T. Jackson, "The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930", New York: Oxford University Press, 1967; reprint, Chicago: Elephant Paperback, 1992]

egregated economic life and education

In addition to excluding blacks from equal participation in many areas of public life, white society also kept blacks in a position of economic subservience or marginality. After widespread losses from disease and financial failures in the late 19th c., black farmers in the South worked in virtual economic bondage as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Employers and labor unions generally restricted African Americans to the worst paid and least desirable jobs. Because of the lack of steady, well-paid jobs, relatively undistinguished positions, such as those with the Pullman Porter or as hotel doorman, became prestigious positions in black communities.

The Jim Crow system that excluded African-Americans from many areas of economic life led to creation of a vigorous, but stunted economic life within the segregated sphere. Black newspapers sprang up throughout the North, while black owners of insurance and funeral establishments acquired disproportionate influence as both economic and political leaders.

Continuing to see education as the primary route of advancement and critical for the race, many talented blacks went into teaching, which had high respect as a profession. Segregated schools for blacks were underfunded in the South and ran on shortened schedules in rural areas. Despite segregation in Washington, DC, by contrast, as Federal employees, black and white teachers were paid on the same scale. Outstanding black teachers in the North received advanced degrees and taught in highly regarded schools, which trained the next generation of leaders in cities such as Chicago, Washington, and New York.

Education, in fact, was one of the major achievements of the black community in the 19th century. Blacks in Reconstruction governments had supported the establishment of public education in every Southern state. Despite the difficulties, with the enormous eagerness of freedmen for education, by 1900 the African-American community had trained and put to work 30,000 African-American teachers in the South. In addition, a majority of the black population had achieved literacy. [James D. Anderson, "Black Education in the South, 1860-1935", Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988, pp.244-245] Not all the teachers had a full 4-year college degree in those years, but the shorter terms of normal schools were part of the system of teacher training in both the North and the South to serve the many new communities across the frontier. African American teachers got many children and adults started on education.

Northern alliances had helped fund normal schools and colleges to teach African American teachers, as well as create other professional classes. African Americans reached out for education at these historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). After the turn of the century, black men and women began to found their own fraternities and sororities to create networks for lifelong service and collaboration. These were part of the new organizations that strengthened community life.

The Black church

As the center of community life, Black churches held a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement. Their history as a focal point for the Black community and as a link between the Black and White worlds made them natural for this purpose. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was but one of many notable Black ministers involved in the movement. Ralph David Abernathy, Bernard Lee, Fred Shuttlesworth, and C.T. Vivian are among the many notable minister-activists. [cite web |url= |title=We Shall Overcome: The Players |accessdate=2007-05-29] They were especially important during the later years of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Niagara Movement and the founding of the NAACP

At the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington was regarded, particularly by the white community, as the foremost spokesman for African-Americans in the U. S. Washington, who led the Tuskegee Institute, preached a message of self-reliance. He urged blacks to concentrate on improving their economic position rather than demanding social equality until they had proved that they "deserved" it. Publicly, he accepted the continuation of Jim Crow and segregation in the short term, but privately helped to fund court cases challenging the laws.

W.E.B. Du Bois and others in the black community rejected Washington's apology for segregation. One of his close associates, Monroe Trotter, was arrested after challenging Washington when he came to deliver a speech in Boston in 1905. Later that year Du Bois and Trotter convened a meeting of black activists on the Canadian side of the river at Niagara Falls. They issued a manifesto calling for universal manhood suffrage, elimination of all forms of racial segregation and extension of education—not limited to the vocational education that Washington emphasized—on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Du Bois joined with other black leaders and Jewish activists, such as Henry Moskowitz, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, and Stephen Wise to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. W.E.B. Du Bois also became editor of its magazine "The Crisis". In its early years, the NAACP concentrated on using the courts to attack Jim Crow laws and disfranchising constitutional provisions. It successfully challenged the Louisville, Kentucky ordinance that required residential segregation in "Buchanan v. Warley", ussc|245|60|1917. It also gained a Supreme Court ruling striking down Oklahoma's "grandfather clause" that exempted most illiterate white voters from a law that disenfranchised African-American citizens in "Guinn v. United States" (1915).

The NAACP lobbied against President Wilson's introduction of racial segregation into Federal government employment and offices in 1913. They lobbied for commissioning of African Americans as officers in World War I. In 1915 the NAACP organized public education and protests in cities across the nation against D.W. Griffith's silent film "Birth of a Nation", a film that glamorized the Ku Klux Klan. Some cities refused to allow the film to open.

The American Jewish community and the civil rights movement

Many from the American Jewish community tacitly or actively supported the civil rights movement. Several of the co-founders of the NAACP were Jewish. Many of its white members and leading activists came from within the Jewish community. The great majority of American Jews who were active in promoting civil rights were secular Jews, Reform Jews and Conservative Jews, especially during the later years.

Jewish philanthropists actively supported the NAACP and various civil rights group, and schools for African-Americans. The Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald funded the creation of dozens of primary schools, secondary schools and colleges for segregated black youth. In partnership with Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee University, Rosenwald created a fund which provided seed money for building 5,000 schools for black Americans, mostly in the rural South. Tuskegee architects created model school plans. What is most remarkable is that black communities 8essentially taxed themselves twice to pay for such schools, which required community matching funds. Often blacks comprised most of the residents in rural areas. Public funds were committed for the schools, and blacks raised additional funds by community events, and sometimes by members' getting second mortgages on their homes. At one time some forty percent of rural southern blacks were learning at Rosenwald elementary schools. [James D. Anderson, "Black Education in the South, 1860-1935", Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 198]

Rosenwald also contributed to historically black colleges such as Howard, Dillard and Fisk universities.

The PBS television show "From Swastika to Jim Crow" discussed Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. It demonstrated that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust came to teach at many Southern schools, where they reached out to black students

:Thus, in the 1930s and '40s when Jewish refugee professors arrived at Southern Black Colleges, there was a history of overt empathy between Blacks and Jews, and the possibility of truly effective collaboration. Professor Ernst Borinski organized dinners at which Blacks and Whites would have to sit next to each other - a simple yet revolutionary act. Black students empathized with the cruelty these scholars had endured in Europe and trusted them more than other Whites. In fact, often Black students - as well as members of the Southern White community - saw these refugees as "some kind of colored folk.":Source - PBS website "From Swastika to Jim Crow"

The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and Anti-Defamation League became active in promoting civil rights.

"The New Negro"

The experience of fighting as part of the war to protect democracy in World War I, along with exposure to the different racial mores of Europe, made a tremendous impact on the black men who returned from the army, creating a widespread demand for equality they had fought for abroad. Those veterans found conditions at home as bad as ever; some were assaulted for having the impertinence of wearing their uniforms. This generation responded with a far more militant spirit than the generation before, urging blacks to fight back when whites attacked them. A. Philip Randolph introduced the term the "New Negro" in 1917; it became the catchphrase to describe the new spirit of militancy and impatience of the post-war era.

A group known as the African Blood Brotherhood, a socialist group with a large number of Jamaican émigrés in its leadership, organized around 1920 to demand the same sort of self-determination for black Americans that the Wilson administration was promising to Eastern European peoples at the Versailles conference in the aftermath of World War I. The leaders of the Brotherhood, many of whom joined the Communist Party in the years to come, were also inspired by the anti-imperialist program of the new Soviet Union.

In addition, during the Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans moved to northern industrial cities starting before World War I and through 1940. They were both fleeing violence and segregation and seeking jobs, as manpower shortages in war industries promised steady work. Continued depressed conditions in the farm economy of the South in the 1920s made the north look more appealing. Those expanding northern communities confronted familiar problems—racism, poverty, police abuse and official hostility— but these were in a new setting, where the men could vote (and women, too, after 1920), and possibilities for political action were far broader than in the South.

Marcus Garvey and the UNIA

Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association made great strides in organizing in these new communities and among the internationalist-minded "New Negro" movement in the early 1920s. Garvey's program pointed in the opposite direction from mainstream civil rights organizations such as the NAACP; instead of striving for integration into white-dominated society, Garvey's program of Pan Africanism has come to be known as Garveyism. It encourages economic independence within the system of racial segregation in the United States, an African Orthodox Church with a black Jesus and black Virgin Mother that offered an alternative to the white Jesus of the black church, and a campaign that urged African Americans to "return to Africa", if not physically, at least in spirit. Garvey attracted thousands of supporters, both in the United States and in the African diaspora in the Caribbean, and claimed eleven million members for the UNIA, which was broadly popular in Northern black communities.

Garvey's movement was a contradictory mix of defeatism, accommodation and separatism: he married themes of self-reliance that Booker T. Washington could have endorsed and the "gospel of success" so popular in white America in the 1920s with a rejection of white colonialism abroad and any hope of reform of white society at home. The movement at first attracted many of the foreign-born radicals also associated with the Socialist and Communist parties, but drove many of them away when Garvey began to suspect them of challenging his control.

The movement collapsed nearly as quickly as it blossomed, as the federal government convicted Garvey for mail fraud in 1922 in connection with the movement's financially troubled "Black Star Line". The government commuted Garvey's sentence and deported Garvey to his native Jamaica in 1927. While the movement floundered without him, it inspired other self-help and separatist movements that followed, including Father Divine and the Nation of Islam.

The Labor movement and civil rights

The labor movement, with some exceptions, had historically excluded African-Americans. While the radical labor organizers who led organizing drives among packinghouse workers in Chicago and Kansas City during World War I and the steel industry in 1919 made determined efforts to appeal to black workers, they were not able to overcome the widespread distrust of the labor movement among black workers in the North. With the ultimate defeat of both of those organizing drives, the black community and the labor movement largely returned to their traditional mutual mistrust.

Left-wing political activists in the labor movement made some progress in the 1920s and 1930s, however, in bridging that gap. A. Phillip Randolph, a long-time member of the Socialist Party of America, took the leadership of the fledgling Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at its founding in 1925. Randolph and the union found themselves facing opposition not only from the Pullman Company, but from the press and churches within the black community, many of whom were the beneficiaries of financial support from the company. The union eventually won over many of its critics in the black community by wedding its organizing program with the larger goal of black empowerment. The union won recognition from the Pullman Company in 1935 after a ten year campaign and a union contract in 1937.

The BSCP became the only black-led union within the American Federation of Labor in 1935. Randolph chose to remain within the AFL when the Congress of Industrial Organizations split from it, even though the CIO was much more committed to organizing African-American workers and made strenuous efforts to persuade the BSCP to join it, because Randolph believed more could be done to advance black workers' rights, particularly in the railway industry, by remaining in the AFL, to which the other railway brotherhoods belonged. Randolph remained the voice for black workers within the labor movement, raising demands for elimination of Jim Crow unions within the AFL at every opportunity. BSCP members such as Edgar Nixon played a significant role in the civil rights struggles of the following decades.

Many of the CIO unions, in particular the Packinghouse Workers, the United Auto Workers and the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers made advocacy of civil rights part of their organizing strategy and bargaining priorities. The Transport Workers Union of America, which had strong ties with the Communist Party at the time, entered into coalitions with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the NAACP and the National Negro Congress to attack employment discrimination in public transit in New York City in the early 1940s.

The CIO was particularly vocal in calling for elimination of racial discrimination by defense industries during World War II; they were also forced to combat racism within their own membership, putting down strikes by white workers who refused to work with black co-workers. While many of these "hate strikes" were short-lived, a wildcat strike launched in Philadelphia in 1944 when the federal government ordered the private transit company to desegregate its workforce lasted two weeks and was ended only when the Roosevelt administration sent troops to guard the system and arrested the strike's ringleaders.

Randolph and the BSCP took the battle against employment discrimination even further, threatening a March on Washington in 1942 if the government did not take steps to outlaw racial discrimination by defense contractors. Randolph limited the March on Washington Movement to black organizations in order to maintain black leadership of it and endured harsh criticism from others on the left for his insistence on black workers' rights in the middle of a war. Randolph only dropped the plan to march after winning substantial concessions from the Roosevelt administration.

The Left and civil rights

"See" The Communist Party and African-Americans.

The Scottsboro Boys

The NAACP and the Communist Party USA also organized support for the "Scottsboro Boys", nine black men first arrested in 1931 after a fight with some white men also riding the rails, then convicted and sentenced to death for raping two white women dressed in men's clothes later found on the same train. The NAACP and the CP fought over the control of those cases and the strategy to be pursued; the CP and its arm the International Labor Defense largely prevailed. The ILD's legal campaign produced two significant Supreme Court decisions extending the rights of defendants; its political campaign saved all of the defendants from the death sentence and ultimately led to freedom for most of them.

The Scottsboro defense was only one of the ILD's many cases in the South; for a period of time in the early and mid-1930s the ILD was the most active defender of blacks' civil rights and the most popular party organization among African-Americans. Its campaigns for black defendants' rights did much to focus national attention on the extreme conditions which black defendants faced in the criminal justice system throughout the South.


The NAACP devoted much of its energy between the first and second world wars to fighting the lynching of blacks throughout the United States. The organization sent Walter F. White, who later became its general secretary, to Phillips County, Arkansas in October, 1919 to investigate the Elaine Race Riot. More than two hundred black tenant farmers were killed by roving white vigilantes and federal troops after a deputy sheriff's attack on a union meeting of sharecroppers left one white man dead. The NAACP organized the appeals for twelve men sentenced to death a month later, based on testimony obtained by beating and electric shocks. They obtained a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision in "Moore v. Dempsey", ussc|261|86|1923 that significantly expanded the Federal courts' oversight of the states' criminal justice systems in the years to come.

The NAACP also spent more than a decade seeking federal legislation barring lynching. It regularly displayed a black flag stating "A Man Was Lynched Yesterday" from the window of its offices in New York to mark each outrage. Southern representatives controlled many committees in Congress because of its long Democratic dominance. It defeated all lynching legislative proposals.

The NAACP led the successful fight, in alliance with the American Federation of Labor, to prevent the nomination of John Johnston Parker to the Supreme Court. They opposed him because of his opposition to black suffrage and his anti-labor rulings. This alliance and lobbying campaign were important for the NAACP, both in demonstrating the NAACP's ability to mobilize widespread opposition to racism and as a first step toward building political alliances with the labor movement.

After World War II, returning African-American veterans were spurred by their experiences to demand equality. One serviceman reportedly said that "I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I'm hanged if I'm going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirree-bob! I went into the Army a nigger; I'm comin' out a man." From 1940 to 1946, the NAACP's membership grew from 50,000 to 450,000.Ewers, Justin (March 22, 2004). [ "'Separate but equal' was the law of the land, until one decision brought it crashing down"] (page 2). "US News & World Report".]

The NAACP's legal department, headed by Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, undertook a campaign spanning several decades to bring about the reversal of the "separate but equal" doctrine announced by the Supreme Court's decision in "Plessy v. Ferguson". Instead of appealing to the legislative or executive branches of government, they focused on the judiciary, reasoning that Congress was dominated by Southern segregationists, while the Presidency could not afford to lose the Southern vote. The NAACP's first cases did not challenge the principle directly, but sought instead to show that the state's segregated facilities were not, in fact, equal.

Even those more modest goals helped lay the foundation for the ultimate reversal of the doctrine in "Brown" by showing the irrational nature of the distinctions that the states drew in order to preserve segregation and the humiliating impact it had on the black subjects of "separate but equal" treatment. The Supreme Court's unanimous decision in "Brown v. Board of Education" holding that state-sponsored segregation of elementary schools was unconstitutional was only a first step in actually dismantling desegregation in the South. It was a historic milestone in reframing the national debate over segregation by putting state-sponsored discrimination beyond constitutional defense.

Marshall eventually decided to go beyond the initial aims of the NAACP, thinking that the time had come to do away with "separate but equal". The NAACP issued a directive stating that their goal was now "obtaining education on a nonsegregated basis and that no relief other than that will be acceptable." The first case Marshall argued on this basis was "Briggs v. Elliott", but cases were also filed in other states. In Topeka, Kansas, the local NAACP branch determined that Oliver Brown would be a good candidate for filing a lawsuit; as an assistant pastor and the father of three girls, he was an ideal candidate. The NAACP instructed him to apply to enroll his daughters at a local white school; after the expected rejection, "Brown v. Board of Education" was filed. Later, this and several other cases made their way to the Supreme Court, where they were all consolidated under the title of "Brown". The decision to name the case was apparently made "so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely southern one."

Some in the NAACP thought Marshall was being too enthusiastic, fearing that the Southern judge, Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who would almost certainly oppose overruling "Plessy", could destroy their case. One historian stated: "There was a sense that if you do this and you lose, you're going to enshrine Plessy for a generation." A government lawyer involved in the case agreed that it was "a mistake to push for the overruling of segregation per se so long as Vinson was chief justice — it was too early." In December 1952, the Supreme Court heard the case, but could not come to a decision. Unusually, the case was pushed back by a year to allow the lawyers involved to research the intention of the framers who drafted the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In September 1953, Vinson passed away due to a heart attack, leading Justice Felix Frankfurter to proclaim: "This is the first indication I have ever had that there is a God." Vinson was replaced by Earl Warren, who was known for his moderate views on civil rights. [Ewers, Justin (March 22, 2004). [ "'Separate but equal' was the law of the land, until one decision brought it crashing down"] (page 3). "US News & World Report".]

After the case was reheard in December, Warren set about convincing his colleagues to reach a unanimous decision overruling "Plessy". Five of the other eight judges were firmly on his side, while another two were persuaded by Warren's promise that the decision would not touch greatly on the question of "Plessy"'s legality, focusing instead on the principle of equality. The remaining holdout, Justice Stanley Reed, was swayed after it was suggested that a Southerner's lone dissent could be more dangerous and incendiary than a unanimous decision. In May 1954, Warren announced the Court's decision, authored by him, which declared that "segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race" deprived "the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities".

However, the decision was not accepted by a number of Southerners; the Governor of Virginia, Thomas B. Stanley, insisted he would "use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia." One survey suggested that only 13% of Florida policemen were willing to enforce the decision in "Brown"; while 19 Senators and 77 members of the House of Representatives, including the entire congressional delegations of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia signed the "The Southern Manifesto", all but two of the signatories were Southern Democrats: Republicans Joel Broyhill and Richard Poff of Virginia promising to resist the decision by "lawful means". Nevertheless, by the fall of 1955, Cheryl Brown started first grade at an integrated school — the first step on the long road to eventual equality for African-Americans. [Ewers, Justin (March 22, 2004). [ "'Separate but equal' was the law of the land, until one decision brought it crashing down"] (page 4). "US News & World Report".]

ee also

* American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968)
* 19th-century African-American civil rights activists
* Nadir of American race relations
* American Civil Rights Movement
* African American History
* Timeline of the American Civil Rights Movement
* Timeline of Racial Tension in Omaha, Nebraska

Further reading

* Bates, Beth Tompkins, "Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1929-1945", 2001 ISBN 0-8078-2614-6.
* Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill; Polsgrove, Carol, eds. "Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963" and "Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973." New York: Library of America, 2003. ISBN 1-931082-28-6 and ISBN 1-931082-29-4.
* Egerton, John, "Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). ISBN 0-679-40808-8
* Kluger, Richard, "Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality" (1975; New York, Vintage Books, 1976). ISBN 0-394-72255-8.


External links

* [ Civil Rights Resource Guide, from the Library of Congress]
* [ What Was Jim Crow?] "(The racial caste system that precipitated the Civil Rights Movement)"
* [ Civil Rights - Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism]
* [ Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project]
* [ Texas Politics - Historical Barriers to Voting, University of Texas]
* [ Integrating with All Deliberate Speed] --contains video history interviews with African American Civil Rights pioneers, a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement and primary source materials (photographs, speeches, historical documents).
* [ African-American History: The Modern Freedom Struggle] - course lecture videos from Stanford University

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