Desegregation Begins

*The modern era of the civil rights movement began, in effect, with Harry Truman.  Despite his personal prejudices, he was horrified to learn of black veterans being beaten and even lynched--even by policemen--upon their return to the South after WWII.  Even at the risk of splitting his own party, Truman began to use the government to attack the legal discrimination then wide-spread in America, especially the South.

*When Truman became president, the South, in addition to being, in many ways, a different country from the North, was itself two very separate worlds.  Jim Crow laws created innumerable legal distinctions between white and black people, and social pressures and traditions enforced and enhanced these rules, keeping whites and black separated and insulated from one another, except in certain approved areas, such as at work--and even there, the races knew their places.

*In every public building in the south, there were three or four bathrooms--one for men, one for women, and one (or perhaps two) for coloured people.  White and coloured people drank from separate water fountains and sat in separate parts of restaurants, theatres, busses, trains, and even churches.  In Alabama, hotels could not legally house black people, and even in states where such laws did not exist, many hotels would not cater to coloured people for social (and thus business) reasons.

*Throughout the south, on average only 20% of blacks who should have been eligible to vote were actually registered.  In some states, notably Mississippi and Alabama, about 5% of potential black voters were registered.  For one thing, many Southern States required a literacy test for voters, but applied a different standard to whites and black (or, in some cases, also used it to keep poor or undesirable whites from voting).  Some states required a poll tax, keeping the very poor (again, mostly black) out of the election process—Tennessee’s poll tax, created by the 1870 Constitution, was ended in 1957.

*When Jim Crow laws were not enough, public opinion, often backed by force, completed the work of segregation and oppression.  Blacks who offended against the unwritten code of the South could be beaten or even killed, and frequently were, with no repercussions for their attackers.  Lynch mobs could even attain a carnival atmosphere.

*In 1946, the National League Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jack Roosevelt (Jackie) Robinson away from the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.  He played for a year in the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, and in 1947, became the first black baseball player to play on a major-league team since the 1880s.  In that year, he was named Rookie of the Year, and in 1949, MVP.  Baseball and other professional sports began to integrate, although this also led to the disappearance of the Negro Leagues, some of the most valuable businesses owned and managed by African-Americans at the time.  The rest of the country would be slow to follow baseball’s lead, however.

*The conservative Congress of the late 1940s refused to pass many of Truman’s proposed civil rights laws, but Truman did begin the process.  In 1948, he ended segregation in the federal civil service and ordered equality of treatment and opportunity in the military.  The Navy had already begun to desegregate, although it would take a while to accomplish this.  The Air Force was slower to begin desegregation (and at one point even tried to institute a policy of completely excluding Negroes), but was the first to complete it.  The Army was the slowest to begin integration and took the longest to complete it, officially ending segregation in 1954, in part due to manpower shortages during the Korean War, although in practise discrimination continued longer.

*When Eisenhower was elected, it did not seem likely that Civil Rights would advance any further in the near future.  Part of the problem was that the preceding decades had seen the vast population shift of the Great Migration, as poor blacks moved North to take advantage of jobs in the factories.  Although this might seem like a positive change, it also exposed northern whites to blacks in large numbers--often to the extent that it seemed to threaten local cultures, traditions, and, after the end of the war, local job markets.  It also hurt the Republicans’ old northern power base, as Truman and Roosevelt’s policies began to turn many blacks to the Democratic Party, and more and more of these Democrats moved to the big cities of the North.  This major change in population concentrations led to increased discrimination in the North.

*The 1896 case of Plessey v. Ferguson was still the law of the land, permitting segregation that was ‘separate but equal.’  Subsequent cases had confirmed the precedent.  Ike’s appointees to the Supreme Court did not seem like the kind of men who would challenge that.

*America was in for a surprise.  Earl Warren, a former governor of California who had been very active in interning Japanese during WWII was appointed by Eisenhower to the Supreme Court in 1953.  He turned out to be very active in promoting social issues, to the dismay of traditionalists everywhere.  As his court made controversial decisions that seemed to change existing laws, many accused him of usurping the power of Congress through ‘judicial legislation.’  His defenders said he was only making laws that needed to be made.  This debate, in broad form, continues to this day.

*In 1954, the Warren court was forced to make a difficult decision.  In 1951, the parents of Linda Brown, a black third-grader in Topeka, Kansas, complained because Linda had to walk more than a mile to school, even though there was a white school only seven blocks away.  The Brown family took the issue to the school board, and was rebuffed.  Soon the NAACP came to their aid and the issue went to trial.  In 1954, the NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, argued the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas  before the Supreme Court (and would later be appointed to the Court himself by LBJ). 

*Overturning almost sixty years of legal precedent and even more decades of tradition, the Supreme Court determined in 1954 that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’  In a subsequent ruling in 1955, the Court ordered the states' compliance with the first Brown decision 'with all deliberate speed.'  These rulings did not end segregation of schools immediately, and they did not require that other facilities be integrated.  White and coloured people still used separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, and even separate sections of restaurants and movie theatres.  Furthermore, many schools in the South exhibited extreme deliberation when moving with all deliberate speed.

*Some of the Border States desegregated relatively quickly, or at least made a real effort.  For the most part, however, southerners resisted integration.  Many formed citizens’ councils, which used both legalistic means and coercion to fight a change in their peculiar institutions.  Although these were not part of the Ku Klux Klan, a third version of the Klan did re-emerge in the 1950s and 1960s to oppose integration of Southern Society through violence--so many Black churches and homes were bombed in Birmingham in the 1950s that some people called it ‘Bombingham.’  In many cases local police openly permitted Klan violence.  Later, in the 1970s, Klan members even tried to use the courts to oppose civil rights laws.

*One tool used by the citizens’ councils was the creation of ‘private schools,’ typically funded in large part by the states or by local school boards, but, being officially called private schools, they were harder for the government to regulate.  The same movement, sometimes called ‘white flight,’ took advantage of existing private schools as well.  On the whole, these ‘private schools,’ with the exception of the already existing ones, tended to be fairly poor in quality.  Even by the mid-1960s, fewer than 2% of the eligible blacks in the Deep South were in integrated classrooms.

*It was not just the Supreme Court that forced the nation to pay attention to the abuse of Blacks in the South.  For the first time, violence there drew nation-wide attention through the media, after, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old black boy from Chicago, went to visit relatives in Mississippi in August, 1955.  Although there was segregation and discrimination in Chicago, it was still a different world compared to the Deep South.  Till was something of a trouble-maker, and bragged about having a white girl-friend back North.  Then he went too far, according to the standards of the time and place.  In a small country store, he either whistled at or made suggestive comments to the young wife of the store owner.  Blacks simply did not treat white women that way in 1955 in Mississippi.  Till was kidnapped from his uncle’s home two days later, brutally beaten and shot, and then dumped in a river, with a fan from a cotton gin tied to his neck with barbed wire.  He was only recognisable from a ring he wore with his initials.

*At first, almost everyone in the area was shocked at the brutality of the murder.  Soon, however, as national attention focused on the town of Money, Missisippi, and the crime was blamed on Southern barbarity, local whites grew increasingly defensive, especially when blacks were allowed to testify in court against the two men who were known to have driven off with Till before his murder (the husband and brother-in-law of the offended woman).  Bitter at the attention and supposed pressure from outsiders, local whites closed ranks. Defense attorney John C. Whitten told the jurors in his closing statement, 'Your fathers will turn over in their graves if [the defendants are found guilty] and I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.' The jurors deliberated for just over an hour, then returned a 'not guilty' verdict on 23 September, 1955, after only a 4-day trial.

*Till's funeral was filmed, and photographs appeared in magazines.  His face, swollen from beatings and the time he spent submerged in the river, shocked a nation, making it harder for the North to turn a blind eye towards what happened to Black in the Deep South.

*Although the rulings on Brown v Board did not apply outside the classroom, some Black activists began to work through other means to achieve the same ends.  Among the first and most famous began in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.  Montgomery’s bus system allowed blacks and whites to use the same busses, but required blacks to sit in the rear, and to give up their seats if the front of the bus became too crowded for the white passengers.

*Rosa Parks sat in the middle of the bus, within the realm acceptable for black riders, but close enough to the front that she might be asked to move.  On 1 December, 1955, the bus she was riding was so crowded that the driver asked her to give up her seat to a white man.  She refused.  She was arrested, tried, and convicted for disorderly conduct.  The NAACP and local activist groups immediately took up the cause.  They elected as their leader a prominent young preacher from a local Baptist church, Martin Luther King, junior.

*Rosa Parks had not done this by accident or on a whim.  She was a trained activist employed by the NAACP who had attended the Highlander Folk School had been founded in Monteagle, in Grundy County, Tennessee in 1932 to offer adult education, but with a socialist bent.  In the 1950s, emphasis turned towards training people to fight for civil rights, and for complete integration of society, not just school desegregation.  Martin Luther King also attended the school.  Because Highlander had been founded by socialists, though, and some of its leaders had communist ties, it was regarded as particularly suspicious by many people at the time.  In 1961 it was forced to close for disobeying state segregation laws, but it reopened in Knoxville where it stayed for ten years.  Today it exists in New Market as the Highlander Research and Education Center.

*For the rest of 1955 and most of 1956, the Black population of Montgomery boycotted the bus system, walking, hitch-hiking, or carpooling.  The Montgomery bus system began to go broke.  Many blacks were arrested, including King, but the NAACP’s appeals to the Supreme Court were answered on 13 November, 1956.  The Court upheld a lower court ruling that Alabama and Montgomery’s laws segregating busses were illegal, and Montgomery was forced to publish new ordinances allowing blacks to sit anywhere.

*In 1956, 101 Southern politicians (99 Democrats and 2 Republicans) wrote and signed the Southern Manifesto, condemning the Supreme Court's "clear abuse of judicial power." It further promised to use "all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation." 

*A few prominent southerners refused to sign it, though, including Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas and both Tennessee's senators (Albert Gore, senior and Estes Kefauver) as well as 5 of Tennessee's 9 representatives (Carroll Reece of the 1st District was among those that did not sign).

*In 1955 Judge Robert Love Taylor had ordered Clinton High School in Anderson County, Tennessee to admit black students in the 1956-57 school year.  In 1956 12 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 major 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 to resign, but his students and parents supported him.

*Still, things got worse, and Judge Taylor issued a restraining order against Kasper, 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.

*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 an 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 the summer of 1957, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, made plans to desegregate its public schools. Within a week of the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision striking down racial segregation in public schools, Arkansas was one of two Southern states to announce it would begin immediately to take steps to comply with the new "law of the land." Arkansas's law school had been integrated since 1949. By 1957, seven of its eight state universities had desegregated. Blacks had been appointed to state boards and elected to local offices.

*Little Rock felt it could break down the barriers of segregation in its schools with a carefully developed program. It had already desegregated its public buses, as well as its zoo, library, and parks system. Its school board had voted unanimously for a plan, starting with desegregation in the high school in 1957, followed by junior high schools the next year and elementary schools following.

*Nine black students, chosen for the academic excellence, were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School.  However, on the day they were to attend, Governor Orval Eugene Faubus (who, although raised as a Socialist and had been given the middle name Eugene by his father to honour Eugene V. Debs, had become more and more right-wing as he grew up) called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students entering the school.

*A federal judge granted an injunction against the Governor's use of National Guard troops to prevent integration and they were withdrawn on September 20th.

*When school resumed on Monday, 23 September, Central High was surrounded by Little Rock policemen. About 1,000 people gathered in front of the school. The police escorted the nine black students to a side door where they quietly entered the building as classes were to begin. When the mob learned they were inside, they began to challenge the police and surge toward the school with shouts and threats. Fearful the police would be unable to control the crowd, the school administration moved the black students out a side door before noon.

*Arkansas Representative Brooks Hays and Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann asked the federal government for help, first in the form of U.S. marshals.

*Eisenhower, who had not approved of Truman’s move to desegregate the military, did not want to get involved in the controversy over civil rights.  Although his fame and prestige might have swayed many people’s opinions, involvement in something so controversial might have also hurt his popularity.  He felt that Truman’s Fair Employment Practises Commission and the decision in Brown v Board had upset ‘the customs and convictions of at least two generations of Americans.'

*Finally, on 24 September, Mayor Mann sent a telegram to President Eisenhower requesting troops. They were dispatched that day and the President also federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard, taking it away from the Governor.  On 24 September, 1957, the 'Little Rock Nine' entered the school under the protection of 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army.

*Faubus called the nationalisation of the Guard an invasion and an occupation force, but federal troops protected the Black students all year, and Ernest Green became the first black student to graduated from Central High School in May 1958.  The next school year, Faubus, with the overwhelming support of Arkansas’ voting public, closed down all public schools in Little Rock, leasing the buildings to ‘private’ school companies.  By spring of 1959, however, the public had had enough and the public schools were re-opened and slowly integrated.  When school re-opened in the fall of 1959, Faubus turned against segregationist protesters, and Little Rock police drove them away with fire hoses.

*In 1957, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction.  Many Senators tried to block the Act, most famously Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in a filibuster to delay the vote.  Eisenhower promised Southern supporters that it was ‘the mildest civil rights bill possible.’  It set up a Civil Rights Commission to investigate violations of civil rights and to use federal injunctions to secure and protect voting rights.

*In 1957, Martin Luther King, junior and Ralph Abernathy, both ministers, organised the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King would run until his death.  It united activists, mostly through Black churches, to resist discrimination through non-violent means.  It also had, according to the FBI, ties to the Communist party, but King was too popular and influential to attack directly.  He was also eventually criticised by some blacks, especially younger, more radical types.  Many of these were students fresh from another form of non-violent protest, the sit-in.

*Although busses and schools had been integrated by 1960, most restaurants had not.  Among the most popular were lunch counters, such as those at Woolworth’s department stores.  In Greensboro, North Carolina, the Woolworth’s lunch counter was only for whites.  In February, 1960, a group of black students sat in all the seats, filling up the counter, and demanding service.  Not only did this keep the counter from doing legitimate business, but it called attention to the discrimination.  Soon it spread to other businesses and to other cities and states, including all of Tennessee's major cities in 1960—the Nashville sit-ins were particularly influential.  Under pressure from the public and from economic concerns, Woolworth’s desegregated their lunch counters in July.  The rapid success of this non-violent protest would bring optimism to the civil rights movement and prestige to SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, formed as part of the Sit-in campaign.

*Despite these victories, there was still much to do before full civil rights and complete equality could be obtained.

This page last updated 23 November, 2020.
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