Steven F. Lawson
Department of History, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center
Racial segregation was a system derived from the efforts of white Americans to keep African Americans in a subordinate status by denying them equal access to public facilities and ensuring that blacks lived apart from whites. During the era of slavery, most African Americans resided in the South, mainly in rural areas. Under these circumstances, segregation did not prove necessary as the boundaries between free citizens and people held in bondage remained clear. Furthermore, Before the Civil War, segregation existed mainly in cities in both the North and the South.blacks and whites lived in close proximity on farms and plantations and geographical isolation made contact between neighbors infrequent. However, free people of color, located chiefly in cities and towns of the North and Upper South, experienced segregation in various forms. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) that African Americans were not U.S. citizens, northern whites had excluded blacks from seats on public transportation and barred their entry, except as servants, from most hotels and restaurants. When allowed into auditoriums and theaters, blacks occupied separate sections; they also attended segregated schools. Most churches, too, were segregated.
Reconstruction after the Civil War posed serious challenges to white supremacy and segregation, especially in the South where most African Americans continued to live. The abolition of slavery in 1865, followed by ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) extending citizenship and equal protection of the law to African Americans and In the years immediately after the Civil War segregation eased somewhat.the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) barring racial discrimination in voting, threatened to overturn the barriers whites had erected to keep blacks separate and unequal. Yet the possibilities of blacks sharing public conveyances and public accommodations with whites increased during the period after 1865. Blacks obtained access to streetcars and railroads on an integrated basis. Indeed, many transportation companies favored integration because they did not want to risk losing black business.
African Americans did gain admission to desegregated public accommodations, but racial segregation, or Jim Crow as it became popularly known, remained the custom. (The term Jim Crow originated from the name of a character in an 1832 minstrel show, where whites performed in black face.) Passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred racial discrimination in public accommodations, provides evidence of the continued presence of segregation and the need to rectify it. The law lasted until 1883, when the Supreme Court of the United States declared the statute unconstitutional for regulating what the justices considered private companies, such as streetcars and entertainment facilities. By this time, the interracial Reconstruction governments had fallen in the South and the federal government had retreated from strong enforcement of black civil rights. With white-controlled governments back in power, the situation of southern blacks gradually deteriorated. To maintain solidarity and remove possible political threats, white southerners initiated a series of efforts to reduce further African American citizenship rights and enforce Jim Crow. The Supreme Court’s 1883 ruling in In the 1880s legislation strengthened segregation in the South. By the 1890s it had become entrenched.the Civil Rights Cases spurred states to enact segregation laws. Between 1887 and 1892, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia refused equal access to African Americans on public accommodations and transportation. These laws forced blacks to sit in the back of the bus, on separate cars in trains, and in the balcony at theaters, for example. From this period on, segregation became a rigid legal system separating the races from cradle to grave—including segregated hospital facilities, cemeteries, and everything in between—no longer tolerating any flexibility in the racial interactions that had previously existed.
Why did Jim Crow become entrenched in the 1890s? The third-party Populist uprising of that decade threatened conservative Democratic rule in the South. Many of those blacks who could still vote, and the number was considerable, joined the Populist insurgency. To check this political rebellion and prevent blacks from wielding the balance of power in close elections, southern Democrats appealed to white solidarity to defeat the Populists, whipped up anti-Negro sentiment, disfranchised African Americans, and imposed strict de jure (by law) segregation.
In the North, while legislation combated segregation, African Americans were still kept separate and apart from whites.In contrast with the South, in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York all adopted laws that prohibited racial discrimination in public facilities. Yet blacks encountered segregation in the North as well. Rather than through de jure segregation, most northern whites and blacks lived in separate neighborhoods and attended separate schools largely through de facto segregation. This kind of segregation resulted from the fact that African Americans resided in distinct neighborhoods, stemming from insufficient income as well as a desire to live among their own people, as many ethnic groups did. However, blacks separated themselves not merely as a matter of choice or custom. Instead, realtors and landlords steered blacks away from white neighborhoods and municipal ordinances and judicially enforced racial covenants signed by homeowners kept blacks out of white areas.
In 1896, the federal government sanctioned racial segregation, fashioning the constitutional rationale for keeping the races legally apart. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law providing for “equal but separate” accommodations for “whites” and “coloreds” did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Plessy v. Ferguson was based upon a belief in white supremacy.Amendment. In its decision the majority of the court concluded that civil rights laws could not change racial destiny. “If one race be inferior to the other socially,” the justices explained, “the Constitution of the United cannot put them on the same plane.” This thinking, which accepted the idea that whites were superior to blacks, derived from scientific judgments of the time that light-skinned people had greater intelligence and a higher degree of civilization than darker-skinned groups, opinions that also fueled U.S. imperialism in the 1890s.
Although the Supreme Court inscribed the doctrine of “separate but equal” into law, in practice this did not happen. Local and state authorities never funded black education equally nor did African Americans have equal access to public accommodations. To make matters worse, In the South segregation prevailed unabated from the 1890s to the 1950s.after the 1890s, nearly all southern blacks lost their right to vote through measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and the white primary. For the next fifty years racial segregation prevailed, reinforced by disfranchisement, official coercion, and vigilante terror. In addition, starting in 1913 with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who had close ties to the South, the federal government imposed racial segregation in government offices in Washington, D.C. (a policy that would not be reversed until the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s).
The struggle against Nazi racism in Europe called attention to racism in America.The bedrock of Jim Crow began to crack after World War II. The war had exposed the horrors of Nazi racism; non-white nations in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia struggled to end colonial rule; and scientists no longer accepted the notion of superior and inferior races. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces, thus reversing a longstanding practice. In 1954, the Supreme Court justices in Brown v. the Board of Education reversed Plessy and decided that legally sanctioned racial segregation was inherently unequal and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, the Brown ruling signaled only a first step, and it took another decade and a mass movement for civil rights for African Americans to tear down the racist edifices of segregation in the South.
Guiding Student Discussion
The challenge is to explain to students the reasons for and the legacy of segregation.Explaining segregation to students is a lot more difficult because of the progress made since the Civil Rights Movement. The symbols of the Jim Crow past—“Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs—are found mainly in antiques stores, museums, photographs, and documentaries. Now that an African American has been elected president of the United States, segregation seems as outmoded and distant a practice as watching black and white television. Thus, the major challenge is to explain to students the reasons for and the legacy of segregation. This requires a series of questions.
The first question to ask is when did racial segregation begin? The importance of this question helps in gauging the potency and endurance of racism as a feature of American history. If segregation began Students should understand that segregation is embedded deeply in America's past.very early in the nation’s history, this suggests that racism is embedded in the very fabric of American society and culture and is something extremely difficult to eradicate. The evidence points in this direction. Before the Civil War, free Negroes in the North encountered segregation in schools, public accommodations, and the military. In 1849, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in Roberts v. City of Boston held that the state could require separate and equal schools for Negroes without violating the right of equality in the Massachusetts Constitution.
Segregation continued to exist after the Civil War and spread to the South once slaves were emancipated. Still, it is one thing to confirm that segregation Students should understand the role the federal government played in establishing and dismantling segregation.persisted following slavery, as evidenced by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and another to assess its strength. What seems unique about race relations from the 1870s to the early 1890s was its porousness: segregation was not as rigid then as it later became. Moreover, blacks still had the right to vote and could wield influence in public affairs. This changed in the 1890s, and teachers should make clear the decisive role of the federal government in contributing to the establishment of hardcore segregation in the South. Thus, Jim Crow did not come about just through individual acts of prejudice but required government intervention from the North as well as the South. Without the official Students should understand that Jim Crow was not simply a matter of individual acts of prejudice. It required government sanction.approval of the Supreme Court in Plessy, the southern states would not have had the constitutional power to enforce Jim Crow. Only when the federal government took action after World War II in what has been called “the Second Reconstruction” did segregation fall, thereby highlighting the critical position Washington, D.C. played in preserving and then dismantling Jim Crow.
Despite complicity from the North, the harshest and most long-lasting forms of segregation occurred in the South. Why were white southerners so adamant in maintaining segregation? Students should comeSegregation was intended to enforce and underscore the subordinate position of blacks in American society. to recognize that segregation was part of the system to subjugate African Americans and affirm their status as inferior people. Southern whites considered this system of vital importance because of the vast majority of African Americans lived in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Separate was never equal nor was it meant to be. Segregation was intended to debase African Americans, strip them of their dignity, reinforce their inequality, and maintain a submissive agricultural labor force. In this way, you can point out to students that the southern United States from the 1890s through the 1960s was similar in many ways to South Africa during its Apartheid Era.
In addition, Jim Crow can be viewed as a system of “disease control.” Segregation quarantined blacks to prevent them from infecting whites with the social and cultural impurities associated with “inferior” African Americans. White men established segregation to keep black men from having sexual relations with white women. Viewing miscegenation as the ultimate threat to the perpetuation of their superior racial stock, they often resorted to lynching black men for allegedly raping white women. In doing so, white men not only reinforced their control over blacks but also white women. They sought to maintain the virtue and chastity of their wives and daughters, reinforcing their patriarchal roles as husband, father, and ultimately guardian of their communities. However, it can be debated whether the real issue was sexual purity or power, for many white southern men both during slavery and Jim Crow actively pursued clandestine sexual relations with black women,
Segregation grew out of fear and a desire to control.Nevertheless, this fear of miscegenation, whether real or imagined, reinforced Jim Crow. White southerners were adamant about maintaining school segregation, particularly in the early grades, because they did not want little white girls to socialize with black boys, which might lead to more intimate relations as they turned into teenagers and young adults.
F. W. Woolworth store, Greensboro, North Carolina, site of 1960 lunch counter sit-in.
How did African Americans respond to Jim Crow and did they view separation and segregation in the same way? Having students Students should understand the difference between voluntary separation and segregation.compare the two should reveal that for the most part African Americans did not oppose separation so long as it was voluntary. Following the Civil War, blacks formed their own schools, churches, and civic organizations over which they exercised control that provided independence from white authorities, including their former masters. African Americans took great pride in the institutions they built in their communities. Black businessmen accumulated wealth by catering to a Negro clientele in need of banks, insurance companies, health services, barber shops and beauty parlors, entertainment, and funeral homes. African Americans as diverse politically as Booker T. Washington in the 1890s, Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, W.E.B. DuBois in the 1930s advocated that blacks concentrate on promoting self-help within their communities and develop their own economic, Integration weakened some black community institutions.social, and cultural institutions. Ironically, one of the unintended side effects of racial integration in the second half of the twentieth century was the erosion of longstanding black business and educational institutions that served African-Americans during Jim Crow.
Students can then see that in contrast to voluntary separation and self-determination, segregation was coercive and grew out of attempts to maintain black subordination and second-class citizenship. Sanctioned by the government, Jim Crow demeaned African Americans, denied them equal opportunity, and assigned them to the margins of public life. If African Americans overstepped Jim Crow’s boundary lines they were forced back by law and, if necessary, through retributive violence.
How did African Americans challenge segregation and white supremacy? In other words, when did the Civil Rights Movement begin and Begin your teaching of the Civil Rights Movement with World War II.what did it seek to accomplish? These are questions that historians still debate. My advice is to start before the usual launching point of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and begin with World War II, when African Americans began a “Double V” Campaign—victory against totalitarianism abroad and racism at home. The continued migration of blacks to the North and West gave African Americans increased voting power to help pressure presidents from Harry Truman on to pass civil rights legislation that would aid their family, friends, and neighbors remaining in the South. At the same time, southern black communities organized and mobilized. A new generation of leaders, many of them military veterans or black college graduates, challenged Jim Crow and disfranchisement. Black women have often been ignored as a significant force behind the Civil Rights Movement, with the focus on the men who led the major organizations. However, teachers should emphasize the role of mothers who permitted their children to face the dangers of integrating schools, daughters who readily joined protest demonstrations, domestic servants who walked miles to work to boycott segregated buses, and churchwomen who rallied their congregations behind civil rights.
Finally, what did African Americans strive for in eliminating segregation? Usually integration is wrongly interpreted as an end in itself or an attempt by blacks to Stress that integration was a tactic, not a goal.assimilate into white society. It is most important for students to understand that for blacks integration was a tactic, not a goal. For example, African Americans sought to desegregate education not because they wanted to socialize with white students, but because it provided the best means for obtaining a quality education. Blacks confronted Jim Crow to defeat white supremacy and obtain political power—the kind that could result in jobs, affordable housing, satisfactory health care, and evenhanded treatment by the police and the judicial system. Rather than erasing their pride in being black or expressing a desire to be like whites, African Americans gained an even greater respect for their race through participation in the Civil Rights Movement and their efforts to shatter Jim Crow.
In 1955, C. Vann Woodward published The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward reflected the optimism following the previous year’s Brown decision by arguing that segregation was not as inherent to southern society as previously believed. He demonstrated that not until the 1890s did southern whites institute the rigid system of Jim Crow that segregated the races in all areas of public life. Woodward pointed out numerous instances during and after Reconstruction when blacks had access to public accommodations. Woodward’s research suggested that segregation might be eradicated through simple changes in public policies, reversing those that had created it in the not-so-distant past.
Woodward’s book spawned a number of other studies both challenging and modifying his thesis. Many of these appeared as the South waged massive resistance to combat the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, suggesting the depth of white racism and the difficulty of overcoming it. In North of Slavery (1961), Leon Litwack found that even before the Civil War free northern Negroes encountered segregation in schools and public accommodations, the kind of discrimination they would face in the South after slavery. Accordingly, segregation had a longer pedigree than Woodward had argued, and it transcended the South and operated nationwide. Joel Williamson’s After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861-1877 (1965) examined race relations in the Palmetto State and found Woodward’s interpretation wanting. Williamson concluded that freed blacks encountered segregation soon after emancipation. He asserted that specific laws were not necessary to keep the races apart because segregation was maintained de facto. He discovered that most white South Carolinians did not accept racial equality and intended to adopt segregation as soon as blacks gained their freedom from slavery.
Howard N. Rabinowitz did not focus so much on the timing of segregation as on its form. In Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (1978), Rabinowitz argued that racial segregation appeared as a substitute for racial exclusion. Thus, in the post-emancipation South freed blacks gained access for the first time to public facilities such as public transportation and health and welfare services. Accordingly, segregation should not be perceived as a punitive measure but as a means of extending services, albeit separate and unequal, to African Americans.
To summarize, historians generally agree that de facto segregation both preceded and accompanied de jure segregation, but that racial interaction in public spheres was less rigid than it became after the 1890s. Whatever its form, however, Jim Crow was always separate and never equal; it constituted a means for reinforcing black subordination and white supremacy. Whatever the exact beginning of segregation, southern whites shared a broad consensus for preserving it. It required a mass, black-led, Civil Rights Movement, combined with the power and renewed willingness of the national government, to overthrow Jim Crow.
Steven F. Lawson was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1987-88. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University and is currently Professor of History at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Dr. Lawson is author of Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (1976), which won the Phi Alpha Theta prize for best first book; In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965-1982 (1985); Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle (2003); and Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941 (3rd ed., 2009).
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Segregation and The Civil Rights Movement
Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every
sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often
called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s who
was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks.
Segregation became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstruction
in 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865),
Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners,
and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws
opening up economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 the
Democratic Party had gained control of government in the Southern states, and
these Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made during
Reconstruction. To that end, they began to pass local and state laws that
specified certain places "For Whites Only" and others for "Colored." Blacks had
separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were
poorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over the next 75 years, Jim Crow
signs went up to separate the races in every possible place. The system of
segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement.
Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for
voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th
Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to
protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read
and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to
education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and
paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, who
were very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all these
hurdles could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidates
because they were open only to whites in most Southern states. Because blacks
could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating
all aspects of Southern life. They could do little to stop discrimination in
public accommodations, education, economic opportunities, or housing. The
ability to struggle for equality was even undermined by the prevalent Jim Crow
signs, which constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status in Southern
society. Segregation was an all encompassing system. Conditions for blacks in
Northern states were somewhat better, though up to 1910 only about 10 percent of
blacks lived in the North, and prior to World War II (1939-1945), very few
blacks lived in the West. Blacks were usually free to vote in the North, but
there were so few blacks that their voices were barely heard. Segregated
facilities were not as common in the North, but blacks were usually denied
entrance to the best hotels and restaurants. Schools in New England were usually
integrated, but those in the Midwest generally were not. Perhaps the most
difficult part of Northern life was the intense economic discrimination against
blacks. They had to compete with large numbers of recent European immigrants for
job opportunities and almost always lost.
Early Black Resistance to Segregation
Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s blacks
sued in court to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states'
disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One
of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in
which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that "separate but equal"
accommodations were constitutional. In fact, separate was almost never equal,
but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation for
the next 50 years. To protest segregation, blacks created new national
organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagara
Movement in 1905; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910 the National Urban League was created to help
blacks make the transition to urban, industrial life. The NAACP became one of
the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied
mainly on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in
courts to obtain equal treatment for blacks. An early leader of the NAACP was
the historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who starting in 1910 made
powerful arguments in favor of protesting segregation as editor of the NAACP
magazine, The Crisis. NAACP lawyers won court victories over voter
disfranchisement in 1915 and residential segregation in 1917, but failed to have
lynching outlawed by the Congress of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.
These cases laid the foundation for a legal and social challenge to segregation
although they did little to change everyday life. In 1935 Charles H. Houston,
the NAACP's chief legal counsel, won the first Supreme Court case argued by
exclusively black counsel representing the NAACP. This win invigorated the
NAACP's legal efforts against segregation, mainly by convincing courts that
segregated facilities, especially schools, were not equal. In 1939 the NAACP
created a separate organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that had a
nonprofit, tax-exempt status that was denied to the NAACP because it lobbied the
U.S. Congress. Houston's chief aide and later his successor, Thurgood Marshall,
a brilliant young lawyer who would become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,
began to challenge segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
World War I
When World War I (1914-1918) began, blacks enlisted to fight for their country.
However, black soldiers were segregated, denied the opportunity to be leaders,
and were subjected to racism within the armed forces. During the war, hundreds
of thousands of Southern blacks migrated northward in 1916 and 1917 to take
advantage of job openings in Northern cities created by the war. This great
migration of Southern blacks continued into the 1950s. Along with the great
migration, blacks in both the North and South became increasingly urbanized
during the 20th century. In 1890, about 85 percent of all Southern blacks lived
in rural areas; by 1960 that percentage had decreased to about 42 percent. In
the North, about 95 percent of all blacks lived in urban areas in 1960. The
combination of the great migration and the urbanization of blacks resulted in
black communities in the North that had a strong political presence. The black
communities began to exert pressure on politicians, voting for those who
supported civil rights. These Northern black communities, and the politicians
that they elected, helped Southern blacks struggling against segregation by
using political influence and money.
The Great Depression of the 1930s increased black protests against
discrimination, especially in Northern cities. Blacks protested the refusal of
white-owned businesses in all-black neighborhoods to hire black salespersons.
Using the slogan "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work," these campaigns persuaded
blacks to boycott those businesses and revealed a new militancy. During the same
years, blacks organized school boycotts in Northern cities to protest
discriminatory treatment of black children. The black protest activities of the
1930s were encouraged by the expanding role of government in the economy and
society. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the
federal government created federal programs, such as Social Security, to assure
the welfare of individual citizens. Roosevelt himself was not an outspoken
supporter of black rights, but his wife Eleanor became an open advocate for
fairness to blacks, as did other leaders in the administration. The Roosevelt
Administration opened federal jobs to blacks and turned the federal judiciary
away from its preoccupation with protecting the freedom of business corporations
and toward the protection of individual rights, especially those of the poor and
minority groups. Beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black to the U.S.
Supreme Court in 1937, Roosevelt chose judges who favored black rights. As early
as 1938, the courts displayed a new attitude toward black rights; that year the
Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was obligated to provide access
to a public law school for blacks just as it provided for whites-a new emphasis
on the equal part of the Plessy doctrine. Blacks sensed that the national
government might again be their ally, as it had been during the Civil War.
World War II
When World War II began in Europe in 1939, blacks demanded better treatment than
they had experienced in World War I. Black newspaper editors insisted during
1939 and 1940 that black support for this war effort would depend on fair
treatment. They demanded that black soldiers be trained in all military roles
and that black civilians have equal opportunities to work in war industries at
home. In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters, a union whose members were mainly black railroad workers, planned a
March on Washington to demand that the federal government require defense
contractors to hire blacks on an equal basis with whites. To forestall the march,
President Roosevelt issued an executive order to that effect and created the
federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce it. The FEPC did
not prevent discrimination in war industries, but it did provide a lesson to
blacks about how the threat of protest could result in new federal commitments
to civil rights. During World War II, blacks composed about one-eighth of the
U.S. armed forces, which matched their presence in the general population.
Although a disproportionately high number of blacks were put in noncombat,
support positions in the military, many did fight. The Army Air Corps trained
blacks as pilots in a controversial segregated arrangement in Tuskegee, Alabama.
During the war, all the armed services moved toward equal treatment of blacks,
though none flatly rejected segregation. In the early war years, hundreds of
thousands of blacks left Southern farms for war jobs in Northern and Western
cities. In fact more blacks migrated to the North and the West during World War
II than had left during the previous war. Although there was racial tension and
conflict in their new homes, blacks were free of the worst racial oppression,
and they enjoyed much larger incomes. After the war blacks in the North and West
used their economic and political influence to support civil rights for Southern
blacks. Blacks continued to work against discrimination during the war,
challenging voting registrars in Southern courthouses and suing school boards
for equal educational provisions. The membership of the NAACP grew from 50,000
to about 500,000. In 1944 the NAACP won a major victory in Smith v. Allwright,
which outlawed the white primary. A new organization, the Congress of Racial
Equality (CORE), was founded in 1942 to challenge segregation in public
accommodations in the North. During the war, black newspapers campaigned for a
Double V, victories over both fascism in Europe and racism at home. The war
experience gave about one million blacks the opportunity to fight racism in
Europe and Asia, a fact that black veterans would remember during the struggle
against racism at home after the war. Perhaps just as important, almost ten
times that many white Americans witnessed the patriotic service of black
Americans. Many of them would object to the continued denial of civil rights to
the men and women beside whom they had fought. After World War II the momentum
for racial change continued. Black soldiers returned home with determination to
have full civil rights. President Harry Truman ordered the final desegregation
of the armed forces in 1948. He also committed to a domestic civil rights policy
favoring voting rights and equal employment, but the U.S. Congress rejected his
proposals. School Desegregation
In the postwar years, the NAACP's legal strategy for civil rights continued to
succeed. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged and
overturned many forms of discrimination, but their main thrust was equal
educational opportunities. For example, in Sweat v. Painter (1950), the Supreme
Court decided that the University of Texas had to integrate its law school.
Marshall and the Defense Fund worked with Southern plaintiffs to challenge the
Plessy doctrine directly, arguing in effect that separate was inherently unequal.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary-
and secondary-school segregation, and in May 1954 issued its landmark ruling in
Brown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education was
unconstitutional. White Southerners received the Brown decision first with shock
and, in some instances, with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, white
opposition in the South had grown into massive resistance, a strategy to
persuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation orders. It was
believed that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court order,
it could not be enforced. Tactics included firing school employees who showed
willingness to seek integration, closing public schools rather than
desegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated. The
White Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation all
over the South. The Citizens Council called for economic coercion of blacks who
favored integrated schools, such as firing them from jobs, and the creation of
private, all-white schools. Virtually no schools in the South were desegregated
in the first years after the Brown decision. In Virginia one county did indeed
close its public schools. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Governor Orval
Faubus defied a federal court order to admit nine black students to Central High
School, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce
desegregation. The event was covered by the national media, and the fate of the
Little Rock Nine, the students attempting to integrate the school, dramatized
the seriousness of the school desegregation issue to many Americans. Although
not all school desegregation was as dramatic as in Little Rock, the
desegregation process did proceed-gradually. Frequently schools were
desegregated only in theory, because racially segregated neighborhoods led to
segregated schools. To overcome this problem, some school districts in the 1970s
tried busing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods. As
desegregation progressed, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew. The KKK
used violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoring
desegregation or black civil rights. Klan terror, including intimidation and
murder, was widespread in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, though Klan
activities were not always reported in the media. One terrorist act that did
receive national attention was the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old
black boy slain in Mississippi by whites who believed he had flirted with a
white woman. The trial and acquittal of the men accused of Till's murder were
covered in the national media, demonstrating the continuing racial bigotry of
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Despite the threats and violence, the struggle quickly moved beyond school
desegregation to challenge segregation in other areas. On December 1, 1955, Rosa
Parks, a member of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, was told to
give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. When Parks refused to move,
she was arrested. The local NAACP, led by Edgar D. Nixon, recognized that the
arrest of Parks might rally local blacks to protest segregated buses.
Montgomery's black community had long been angry about their mistreatment on
city buses where white drivers were often rude and abusive. The community had
previously considered a boycott of the buses, and almost overnight one was
organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was an immediate success, with virtually
unanimous support from the 50,000 blacks in Montgomery. It lasted for more than
a year and dramatized to the American public the determination of blacks in the
South to end segregation. A federal court ordered Montgomery's buses
desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph. A young Baptist
minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was president of the Montgomery
Improvement Association, the organization that directed the boycott. The protest
made King a national figure. His eloquent appeals to Christian brotherhood and
American idealism created a positive impression on people both inside and
outside the South. King became the president of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC) when it was founded in 1957. SCLC wanted to
complement the NAACP legal strategy by encouraging the use of nonviolent, direct
action to protest segregation. These activities included marches, demonstrations,
and boycotts. The violent white response to black direct action eventually
forced the federal government to confront the issues of injustice and racism in
the South. In addition to his large following among blacks, King had a powerful
appeal to liberal Northerners that helped him influence national public opinion.
His advocacy of nonviolence attracted supporters among peace activists. He
forged alliances in the American Jewish community and developed strong ties to
the ministers of wealthy, influential Protestant congregations in Northern
cities. King often preached to those congregations, where he raised funds for
SCLC. The Sit-Ins
On February 1, 1960, four black college students at North Carolina A&T
University began protesting racial segregation in restaurants by sitting at
"white-only" lunch counters and waiting to be served. This was not a new form of
protest, but the response to the sit-ins in North Carolina was unique. Within
days sit-ins had spread throughout North Carolina, and within weeks they were
taking place in cities across the South. Many restaurants were desegregated. The
sit-in movement also demonstrated clearly to blacks and whites alike that young
blacks were determined to reject segregation openly. In April 1960 the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina,
to help organize and direct the student sit-in movement. King encouraged SNCC's
creation, but the most important early advisor to the students was Ella Baker,
who had worked for both the NAACP and SCLC. She believed that SNCC should not be
part of SCLC but a separate, independent organization run by the students. She
also believed that civil rights activities should be based in individual black
communities. SNCC adopted Baker's approach and focused on making changes in
local communities, rather than striving for national change. This goal differed
from that of SCLC which worked to change national laws. During the civil rights
movement, tensions occasionally arose between SCLC and SNCC because of their
different methods. Freedom Riders
After the sit-ins, some SNCC members participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides
organized by CORE. The Freedom Riders, both black and white, traveled around the
South in buses to test the effectiveness of a 1960 Supreme Court decision. This
decision had declared that segregation was illegal in bus stations that were
open to interstate travel. The Freedom Rides began in Washington, D.C. Except
for some violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the trip southward was peaceful
until they reached Alabama, where violence erupted. At Anniston one bus was
burned and some riders were beaten. In Birmingham, a mob attacked the riders
when they got off the bus. They suffered even more severe beatings by a mob in
Montgomery, Alabama. The violence brought national attention to the Freedom
Riders and fierce condemnation of Alabama officials for allowing the violence.
The administration of President John Kennedy interceded to protect the Freedom
Riders when it became clear that Alabama state officials would not guarantee
safe travel. The riders continued on to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were
arrested and imprisoned at the state penitentiary, ending the protest. The
Freedom Rides did result in the desegregation of some bus stations, but more
importantly, they demonstrated to the American public how far civil rights
workers would go to achieve their goals.
SCLC's greatest contribution to the civil rights movement was a series of highly
publicized protest campaigns in Southern cities during the early 1960s. These
protests were intended to create such public disorder that local white officials
and business leaders would end segregation in order to restore normal business
activity. The demonstrations required the mobilization of hundreds, even
thousands, of protesters who were willing to participate in protest marches as
long as necessary to achieve their goal and who were also willing to be arrested
and sent to jail. The first SCLC direct-action campaign began in 1961 in Albany,
Georgia, where the organization joined local demonstrations against segregated
public accommodations. The presence of SCLC and King escalated the Albany
protests by bringing national attention and additional people to the
demonstrations, but the demonstrations did not force negotiations to end
segregation. During months of protest, Albany's police chief continued to jail
demonstrators without a show of police violence. The Albany protests ended in
failure. In the spring of 1963, however, the direct-action strategy worked in
Birmingham, Alabama. SCLC joined the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local civil
rights leader, who believed that the Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene
"Bull" Connor, would meet protesters with violence. In May the SCLC staff
stepped up antisegregation marches by persuading teenagers and school children
to join. The singing and chanting adolescents who filled the streets of
Birmingham caused Connor to abandon restraint. He ordered police to attack
demonstrators with dogs and firefighters to turn high-pressure water hoses on
them. The ensuing scenes of violence were shown throughout the nation and the
world in newspapers, magazines, and most importantly, on television. Much of the
world was shocked by the events in Birmingham, and the reaction to the violence
increased support for black civil rights. In Birmingham white leaders promised
to negotiate an end to some segregation practices. Business leaders agreed to
hire and promote more black employees and to desegregate some public
accommodations. More important, however, the Birmingham demonstrations built
support for national legislation against segregation.
Desegregating Southern Universities
In 1962 a black man from Mississippi, James Meredith, applied for admission to
University of Mississippi. His action was an example of how the struggle for
civil rights belonged to individuals acting alone as well as to organizations.
The university attempted to block Meredith's admission, and he filed suit. After
working through the state courts, Meredith was successful when a federal court
ordered the university to desegregate and accept Meredith as a student. The
governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, defied the court order and tried to
prevent Meredith from enrolling. In response, the administration of President
Kennedy intervened to uphold the court order. Kennedy sent federal marshals with
Meredith when he attempted to enroll. During his first night on campus, a riot
broke out when whites began to harass the federal marshals. In the end, 2 people
were killed, and about 375 people were wounded. When the governor of Alabama,
George C. Wallace, threatened a similar stand, trying to block the desegregation
of the University of Alabama in 1963, the Kennedy Administration responded with
the full power of the federal government, including the U.S. Army, to prevent
violence and enforce desegregation. The showdowns with Barnett and Wallace
pushed Kennedy, whose support for civil rights up to that time had been
tentative, into a full commitment to end segregation.
The March on Washington
The national civil rights leadership decided to keep pressure on both the
Kennedy administration and the Congress to pass civil rights legislation by
planning a March on Washington for August 1963. It was a conscious revival of A.
Philip Randolph's planned 1941 march, which had yielded a commitment to fair
employment during World War II. Randolph was there in 1963, along with the
leaders of the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, the Urban League, and SNCC. Martin Luther King,
Jr., delivered the keynote address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil
rights supporters. His "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the giant sculpture
of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, became famous for how it expressed
the ideals of the civil rights movement. Partly as a result of the March on
Washington, President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights law. After Kennedy was
assassinated in November 1963, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, strongly urged
its passage as a tribute to Kennedy's memory. Over fierce opposition from
Southern legislators, Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through
Congress. It prohibited segregation in public accommodations and discrimination
in education and employment. It also gave the executive branch of government the
power to enforce the act's provisions.
The year 1964 was the culmination of SNCC's commitment to civil rights activism
at the community level. Starting in 1961 SNCC and CORE organized voter
registration campaigns in heavily black, rural counties of Mississippi, Alabama,
and Georgia. SNCC concentrated on voter registration, believing that voting was
a way to empower blacks so that they could change racist policies in the South.
SNCC worked to register blacks to vote by teaching them the necessary skills-
such as reading and writing-and the correct answers to the voter registration
application. SNCC worker Robert Moses led a voter registration effort in McComb,
Mississippi, in 1961, and in 1962 and 1963 SNCC worked to register voters in the
Mississippi Delta, where it found local supporters like the farm-worker and
activist Fannie Lou Hamer. These civil rights activities caused violent
reactions from Mississippi's white supremacists. Moses faced constant terrorism
that included threats, arrests, and beatings. In June 1963 Medgar Evers, NAACP
field secretary in Mississippi, was shot and killed in front of his home.
In 1964 SNCC workers organized the Mississippi Summer Project to register blacks
to vote in that state. SNCC leaders also hoped to focus national attention on
Mississippi's racism. They recruited Northern college students, teachers,
artists, and clergy-both black and white-to work on the project, because they
believed that the participation of these people would make the country more
concerned about discrimination and violence in Mississippi. The project did
receive national attention, especially after three participants, two of whom
were white, disappeared in June and were later found murdered and buried near
Philadelphia, Mississippi. By the end of the summer, the project had helped
thousands of blacks attempt to register, and about 1000 had actually become
The Summer Project increased the number of blacks who were politically active
and led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). When
white Democrats in Mississippi refused to accept black members in their
delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1964, Hamer and others went
to the convention to challenge the white Democrats' right to represent
Mississippi. In a televised interview, Hamer detailed the harassment and abuse
experienced by black Mississippians when they tried to register to vote. Her
testimony attracted much media attention, and President Johnson was upset by the
disturbance at the convention where he expected to be nominated for president.
National Democratic Party officials offered the black Mississippians two
convention seats, but the MFDP rejected the compromise offer and went home.
Later, however, the MFDP challenge did result in more support for blacks and
other minorities in the Democratic Party.
In early 1965 SCLC employed its direct-action techniques in a voting-rights
protest initiated by SNCC in Selma, Alabama. When protests at the local
courthouse were unsuccessful, protesters began a march to Montgomery, the state
capital. As the marchers were leaving Selma, mounted police beat and tear-gassed
them. Televised scenes of that violence, called Bloody Sunday, s
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