By Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case, in 1954, and then the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to 1956, inaugurated the legal and activist phases of the Civil Rights movement. By 1965, a combination of lobbying, direct action, and shifts in public sympathy had eventuated in the complete legal abolition of racial segregation.
Abolishing Racial Segregation in the Army
The decision, in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, case—which the Supreme Court decided in 1954—was the culmination of a long period of legal struggle for desegregation, led by the legal department of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Already, auguries of racial change were coming about. For example, after the Second World War, the American military abandoned racial segregation. A government committee report called, ‘To Secure These Rights’, published in 1947, condemned American racial policy as intolerable, and in violation of national principles.
Consequently, President Harry Truman took the stand of abolishing racial segregation and discrimination in the armed forces in 1948, and also in federal hiring. That meant that when the American army went to war in Korea, it was desegregated, whereas, it had been segregated during World War II.
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The elections of 1948 were also a very important moment in indicators that the racial situation was changing. The Democratic Party of 1948 was divided on the civil rights question. Hubert Humphrey, who was then the Mayor of Minneapolis, gave a passionate speech on behalf of civil rights. He said, “The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
In other words, “states’ rights” was the shelter behind which southern segregationists maintained their policies.
The Elections of 1948
It led to fervent applause from some, particularly northern Democrats, but it also led to some southern Democrats walking out of the convention completely, to create an alternative political movement.
The 1948 elections were also probably the most surprising presidential elections of the entire 20th century, as the Democratic Party appeared to be breaking up both right and left. The ‘Dixiecrats’, that is southern white segregationists, walked out. Another group who had left the Democratic Party were the ‘Henry Wallace Progressives’.
The conventional wisdom in 1948 was, therefore, that Truman was bound to lose, and the Republican Dewey was going to win, because the Democratic Party had been split to the right and to the left.
Desegregation of Major League
However, in an astonishing election upset, Truman won anyway. Another fact which was crucial was that, the previous year, in 1947, major league baseball had been desegregated by the inclusion of Jackie Robinson, a talented young black player, by the Dodgers. It was, therefore, not in itself a major step, but certainly symbolically very important, because from then on, the arrival of talented black athletes in all the major-league sports accelerated rapidly.
Needless to say, the Brown case had immense consequences, because it indicated that American schools, and in fact potentially all American public facilities, must now be desegregated. They had continued to be racially segregated ever since the 1890s, a decision that had been upheld back in 1896 by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
Why the Brown Case Was Important
In an important move, the Warren Court, under the leadership of Earl Warren, used sociological and psychological evidence to show that separate education for a racial minority was inherently unequal. In other words, even if the black schools have been just as good as the white schools, the fact that they were separate was itself discriminatory and would be harmful, and therefore, the court said, must be eliminated.
Earl Warren was, in a sense, clearing the way to the removal of the structure of racial segregation. A series of cases had preceded the Brown case, the so-called ‘graduate schools’ cases, but their main impact had been to ensure that separate schools really must be equal. The Brown case made the position clear that even that was no longer good enough.
In the meanwhile, Southern states were busy building much higher quality schools for their African American children in the knowledge that if they didn’t, they were going to be defeated on those grounds. They started it too late, though. The decision had emphasized the inherent inequality of separation.
The following year, in a decision called Brown II, the Court said that school desegregation should now take place with, “all deliberate speed”. That was an ambiguous phrase, because being deliberate about something could mean that one is actually doing it rather slowly, and certainly the defenders of racial segregation took it in that light.
Token Racial Integration
Consequently, most of the southern states where segregation had been the law—and was the law—dragged their feet, and did everything they could to delay the reality of racial integration. What most school districts did instead, especially those that were reluctantly accepting the logic of integration, was to do token racial integration.
That is, in classes that were still overwhelmingly white in composition, they’d permit one or two black students to enter, usually the ones who were the very best intellectually, academically, or the very best athletically, and by making token integration.
In the end, the southern congressional delegations got together to declare a policy of massive resistance. That is, they did everything they could to prevent the racial integration of their institutions.
Common Questions about the Civil Rights movement in Postwar America
The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, case—which the Supreme Court decided in 1954—was the culmination of a long period of legal struggle for desegregation, led by the legal department of the NAACP.
President Truman took the stand of abolishing racial segregation and discrimination in the armed forces in 1948, and also in federal hiring.
The Warren Court, under the leadership of Earl Warren, used sociological and psychological evidence to show that separate education for a racial minority was inherently unequal.