American History
Desegregation Begins

*After the Civil War, segregation was common throughout the South and enforced through Jim Crow Laws.  It was recognized as legal through the 1896 Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Fergusson which ruled that separate facilities were legal as long as they were equal (although in reality they rarely were).

 

*Although the South had de jure (by law) segregation, most of the North and West had de facto (in fact) segregation (which sometimes affected Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans as well).

 

*There had been some challenges to this for decades, but the turning point may have been World War II.  Franklin Roosevelt banned discrimination in war industries in 1941, and many black soldiers who fought in the war expected better treatment when they returned home.

 

*Other African-Americans opposed the War.  In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was formed by African-Americans pacifists, who were inspired by the non-violent protests of Ghandi against British rule of India, and hoped that similar tactics might win greater rights for African-Americans.

 

*There were some black successes in the 1940s. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American to play on a major league baseball team.

 

*In parts of the US, especially in the South, though, returning black veterans often faced discrimination and, when they resisted more forcefully than they might have before they had military training, whites responded with violence, even beginning race riots. 

 

*This horrified Harry Truman.  Although he was personally a racist, he believed that the Constitution was not.  He tried to get Congress to outlaw lynching and to protect voting rights, but Congress refused.  In 1948 he did use his power as Commander-in-Chief to order the military to desegregate.

 

*After World War II, the NAACP brought more and more lawsuits against racist institutions.  At first, they won cases in which separate facilities were clearly not equal, but in 1954 they took on the entire concept of Plessy v. Fergusson.

 

*The NAACP sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, for not allowing African-Americans to attend the same schools as white children.  When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1954, it was known as Brown v. Board (Oliver Brown was the father of Linda Brown, one of the segregated students).

 

*Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court decided that separate education was inherently unequal.  Two years later, the Court ordered that desegregation of all schools begin with ‘all deliberate speed,’ but some parts of the country were much more deliberate than others.

 

*In some places, there were violent protests.  In 1955 Judge Robert Love Taylor ordered Clinton High School in Anderson County, Tennessee to admit black students in the 1956-57 school year.  15 black students registered at the school, which had about 800 students.  This made it the first public school in the South to desegregate.

*At first there were no apparent problems.  However, an advocate of segregation from
Washington, D.C. named John Kasper came down to organise anti-integration protests.  He tried to force the principal, B.J. Brittain to resign, but his students and parents supported him.

*Still, things got worse, and Judge Taylor issued a restraining order against Kemper, who was later charged with inciting a riot (although he was eventually acquitted).  Local officials asked Governor Clement to send help, and he sent 600 National Guardsmen.

*Some black students reported harassment and even death threats from white students, although others said things weren’t so bad.

*When black students asked the school officials for additional protection, it was denied, so local white citizens offered to escort them to school.  The most prominent of these was Reverend Paul Turner, minister of the local white Baptist church.  After escorting his students to class on 4 December, he was attacked, beaten, and left bleeding on the sidewalk.  This attack on such a respected figure shocked the town so much that there was no more outright violence for the rest of the school year.

*In May 1957, Bobby Cain became the first black student to graduate from a desegregated high school in
Tennessee.  In July, Judge Taylor sentenced Kasper to a year in prison for violating a federal injunction meant to force him to obey Taylor’s restraining order.  Everything seemed to be returning to normal.

*In October 1958,
Clinton High School was blown up with dynamite.  Because it was on a Sunday, no-one was hurt, but the building was destroyed.  The Atomic Energy Commission lent the school officials and abandoned school in Oak Ridge, and school continued.  Overall, integration had been a success, with the biggest problems instigated by outside forces.  Most whites might not have been happy with desegregation, but they did not want to destroy their town over it.

 

*Not every part of the South desegregated as well as Tennessee did.  In 1957, the Little Rock, Arkansas school board allowed African-American students to enrol in the all-white Central High School, and nine did so.  Governor Orval Faubus threatened to prevent this, and called out the Arkansas National Guard to do so. 

 

*When the black students arrived at school, soldiers blocked the doors and the crowds threatened them with beatings and lynching. 

 

*This was too much for President Eisenhower.  Although he privately thought forcing schools to desegregate was a bad idea, once the Supreme Court had decided on it, he could not allow any state government to refuse.  He sent in US troops to protect the Little Rock Nine, escorting them to class every day.

 

*Things went much slower in many parts of the South.  The Ku Klux Klan became prominent again, while White Citizens Councils pressured local governments to make sure that even when segregation officially ended, school districts were drawn up making sure that de facto segregation continued.

 

*Johnson City only desegregated by court order in 1965, and Langston High School was shut down (along with most other coloured schools) because no white parent was willing to let their child go to a black school.  In 1956, ETSU had admitted its first black student, Eugene Caruthers, a graduate student in music, who went on to direct the band at Langston High for its last few years in operation.

 

*As the crisis in Little Rock unfolded, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the United States Civil Rights Commission, which could investigate violations of civil rights.  It did not have much power to enforce its decisions, but it was a start.

 

*Other non-violent protests were also effective.  In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.  This was no accident—she was involved in the civil rights movement (and had even gotten civil-rights activism training at the Highlands Folk School in Tennessee) and she had been looking for a chance to challenge segregated bussing (in which African-Americans sat in the back of busses and still had to give up their seats if the white section got over-crowded).  When she refused, she was arrested.

 

*In response, African-Americans in Montgomery boycotted the busses for one day.  Soon they decided to continue the boycott, with the encouragement of Martin Luther King, junior.  After more than a year, in 1956, the Supreme Court ordered Montgomery to desegregate its busses and the boycott came to an end.

 

*Afterwards, King and Ralph Abernathy (both Christian ministers), formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to work for non-violent change.  They used boycotts, prayer vigils, marches, sit-ins, and strikes to demand change. 

 

*So did another group, formed in 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  They had been inspired by student protests in Greensboro, North Carolina.  There, beginning on 1 February, 1960, black students had staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, refusing to leave until they were served, both causing a scene and denying the restaurant business.  Similar sit-ins began in Nashville and elsewhere, and were eventually successful.

 

*As the 1960s continued, however, both white and black protests would move beyond non-violence to militancy.

 

 



This page last updated 10 November, 2009.