UNITED STATES HISTORY
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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.