THE STRUGGLE FOR BLACK EQUALITY (Chapter One)Up From Slavery
There is a difference in knowing you are black and in understanding what it means to be black in America. Before I was ten I knew what it was to step off the sidewalk to let a white man pass.
Nourished by anger, revolutions are born of hope. They are the offspring of belief and bitterness, of faith in the attainment of one’s goals and indignation at the limited rate and extent of change. Rarely in history are the two stirrings confluent in a sufficient force to generate an effective, radical social movement. They would be so in African America in the 1960s.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, few African-Americans struggled hopefully. Many African-Americans resisted, often in subtle and solitary ways, at times in an organized and collective manner, transmitting from one generation to the next a tradition of black protest. But their initial efforts to continue the campaign against Jim Crow initiated by the black abolitionists failed to stem the rising crest of white racism after Reconstruction. Largely bereft of white allies, blacks fought on the defensive, trying to hold their limited gains. They lost each battle. Congress permitted the white South to reduce blacks to a state of peonage, to disregard their civil rights, and to disenfranchise them by force, intimidation, and statute. So did the Supreme Court. Writing into the Constitution its own beliefs in the inferiority of blacks, the late-nineteenth-century high court tightened every possible shackle confining the ex-slaves. Most American scholars cheered this legal counterrevolution which effectively nullified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. It exemplified their teachings of inherent and irremediable racial differences, of blacks as the most primitive, degraded, and least civilized of the races, and of the folly of governmental tampering with local folkways. Whether appealing to scriptural or scientific evidence, to Darwinism, the gospel of Anglo-Saxonism, or the new interest in eugenics, a generation of clergymen, editors, and educators propounded the intellectual rationalizations for white supremacy.
Not surprisingly, most white Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century believed that, for the good of all, the naturally superior whites should rule over the baser races. They heard or read little to the contrary. The Southern Way had become the American Way. Even the most humanitarian reformers concerned with racial injustice counseled gradualism. Northern liberals preached the necessity of deferring citizenship for blacks until the freedmen were ready for it; they emphasized the long-term gains to be derived from education, religion, and economic uplift and denigrated strategies predicated on agitation, force, or political activity.
This total acquiescence by government officials and Northern public opinion gave the white South all the permission it needed to institutionalize its white-supremacist beliefs. First came disenfranchisement, accomplished in the 1880s mainly through fraud and force. All the Southern states felt emboldened in the next two decades to follow the lead of the 1890 Mississippi state constitutional convention in officially adopting such disenfranchising techniques as poll taxes, “grandfather clauses,” literacy and “good character” tests, and white primaries. Black voter registration plummeted 96 percent in Louisiana between 1896 and 1900. The number of African-Americans permitted to vote in the new century hovered around 3,500 in Alabama, which had an adult black population of nearly 300,000; and in Mississippi, with an even larger black population, fewer than a thousand blacks voted.
Political impotency bore on every aspect of African-American life. Unable to participate in the enactment or enforcement of the law, Southern blacks became increasingly vulnerable to physical assault and murder. Over a thousand were lynched between 1900 and 1915. No records exist to tally the number beaten or tortured. Nor can one describe adequately the terror of living with a constant fear of barbarity and violence, of having your security subject to the whim of those who despise you, of having no recourse to police or courts.
The Southern states, in addition, adopted a host of statutes methodically outlawing everything “interracial.” These new segregation laws expressed the white South’s all-encompassing belief in the inequality of blacks. Most Southern states now formally required Negroes and whites to be born separately in segregated hospitals; to live their lives as separately as possible in segregated schools, public accommodations, and places of work and recreation; and, presumably, to dwell in the next life separately in segregated funeral homes and cemeteries. The rapid proliferation of Jim Crow laws inspired an irrational competition among Southern legislators to erect ever more and higher barriers between the races. “White” and “Colored” signs sprouted everywhere and on everything. Atlanta mandated Jim Crow Bibles in its courtrooms and prohibited African-Americans and whites from using the same park facilities, even from visiting the municipal zoo at the same time. Alabama forbade African-Americans to play checkers with whites, and Mississippi insisted on Jim Crow taxicabs. New Orleans segregated its prostitutes, and Oklahoma, its telephone booths. The lawmakers of Florida and North Carolina saw to it that white students would never touch textbooks used by African-Americans. Such edicts bolstered white power and privilege while demeaning the spirit of African-Americans.
Jim Crow, furthermore, easily led to gross inequities in the distribution of public monies for education and civic services. The eleven Southern states in 1916 spent an average of $10.32 per white public-school student, and only $2.89 per black pupil. There was one hospital bed available for every 139 American whites in the 1920s, but only one for every 1,941 blacks. And that was not all. Southern governments victimized blacks by bestial convict-leasing and chain-gang practices, and confined them to serfdom on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, doing all they could to implement the view of James K. Vardaman, who became Governor of Mississippi in 1904, that “God Almighty had created the Negro for a menial.”
Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation early in the nineteenth century that white Americans “scarcely acknowledge the common features of humanity in this stranger whom slavery has brought among them” remained as accurate a century later.
And blacks could do little to alter the situation. More than 90 percent of the nearly ten million African-Americans in 1910 lived in the South, three-quarters of them in rural areas, the vast majority working a white man’s land, with a white man’s mule and a white man’s credit. Theirs was an oppressive, closed society, designed to thwart black advancement and encourage black subservience. All political and economic power remained vested in whites determined to maintain the status quo, however many black lives it cost. Daily facing grinding poverty, physical helplessness, and all the banal crudities of existence under an open, professed, and boasting racism, many blacks grew fatalistic. Segregation and discrimination came to seem permanent, immutable, an inevitable condition of life, and the majority of African-Americans succumbed to the new racial order.
But not all. Some protested by migrating. Between 1890 and 1910, nearly two hundred thousand Southern blacks fled to the North. Others returned to Africa or established autonomous black communities in the West. A few, mostly members of the tiny, Northern black elite, continued the struggle they had inherited from the black abolitionists and from the inspiring vision of equal rights nourished by the Civil War and Reconstruction. They spoke out for racial justice in such organizations as the Afro-American Council, Monroe Trotter’s National Equal Rights League, Ida B. Wells’s Antilynching League, and the Niagara Movement. Yet few blacks heard their pleas, and fewer whites heeded their demands. These small communities of resistance and struggle in the early twentieth century, lacking adequate finances, political leverage, influential white allies, access to the major institutions shaping public opinion and policy, and the support of large numbers of blacks, could do virtually nothing to alter the course of American life and thought. As Willie Brown lamented in his blues:
Can’t tell my future, I can’t tell my past.
Lord, it seems like every minute sure gon’ be my last.
Oh, a minute seems like hours, and hours seem like days.
And a minute seems like hours, hour seems like days.
The ascendancy of Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century epitomized both the widespread despair of blacks and the powerlessness of the handful of blacks actively fighting against racial injustice. Although he worked covertly to diminish disenfranchisement and Jim Crow, Washington publicly emphasized the necessity of accommodation, conciliation, and gradualism. “The best course to pursue in regard to civil rights,” he lectured to blacks, “is to let it alone; let it alone and it will settle itself.” When the British author H. G. Wells criticized Jim Crow while on a visit to the United States, Washington answered back: “The only answer to it is for colored men to be patient, to make themselves competent, to do good work, to give no occasion against us.” A spokesman for the emerging black middle class, he counseled all blacks to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. Too few, however, even had boots, and in the years before his death in 1915, Washington’s nostrums failed abysmally to alleviate the plight of blacks.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organized in 1910, fared no better. Declaring its purposes to be “to promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice…to advance the interests of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability; and complete equality before the law,” the interracial NAACP relied on litigation as the chief means to those ends. Despite two victories at the Supreme Court, which declared unconstitutional the grandfather clause and city ordinances mandating residential segregation, the association’s goals remained an impossible dream during its first quarter of a century. It could not destroy the edifice of discrimination, lessen the rampant prejudice everywhere in the nation, or deter the mushrooming ghettoization of blacks. Because of continuing white indifference and black impotency, the NAACP could do nothing to affect the racial policies of Southern governments or to compel the necessary corrective actions by the national government.
Indeed, no black leader or organization or strategy could stem the tide of discrimination and segregation in the first third of the twentieth century. Powerlessness fostered frustrations. Defeat bred disillusionment. Blacks in the 1920s squabbled among themselves more than they assailed their oppressors.
Certain harbingers of change nonetheless appeared. Most stemmed from the mass migration of blacks to the cities and to the North. Between 1910 and 1920 the “Great Migration” brought more than half a million blacks northward, and another three-quarters of a million blacks fled from the boll weevil and the lynch mob in the 1920s. Some who followed the North Star looking for the Promised Land found hell instead: educational and residential segregation, dilapidated housing milked by white slumlords, discrimination by labor unions and employers, brutality by white policemen, and liquor and narcotics the only means of escape. Yet, for most, the Northern urban ghetto meant surcease from permanent tenantry, poverty, disease, and ignorance, and the first step into the mainstream of the industrial labor force.
Northern Negroes, unlike their Southern brethren, could vote. In 1928, for the first time in the century, an African-American was elected to Congress. Other blacks won local offices in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, and Philadelphia, and the votes of African-Americans became a factor in election results. Politically, the African-American in the North began to command attention. The bonds of hopelessness of the rigid caste system of the Black Belt less and less characterized all of black America.
Hope sprouted also from the seeds of spiritual emancipation planted by the literary movement of the 1920s that African-Americans labeled the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Renaissance, and the New Negro Movement. Whether celebrating the racial chauvinism of African-Americans, affirming their identification with Africa, or decrying lynchings and racial oppression, poets and novelists of color sought to free themselves from white symbols and images and to write in their own idiom. By focusing white America’s attention on blacks, by awakening the pride of African-Americans in their race and folk traditions, and by militant protests and demands for civil rights, the New Negro articulated the possibility of change brought about by migration.
So did the NAACP. Led by W. E. B. Du Bois, the brilliant black editor of its monthly journal, The Crisis, the NAACP publicized the hostility of organized labor to blacks, railed against disenfranchisement, and demanded that Congress enact an anti-lynching bill. Despite repeated rebuffs, the NAACP kept aloft the banners of racial equality, and gradually gained adherents. Its branches enabled local African-American leaders to acquire organizational skills and to develop networks of resources. Most important, its tactic of loudly complaining at each manifestation of racism slowly eroded the myth that Southern whites and black accommodators had forged: that blacks were content, even happy, with the status quo; that they did not consider the rights and duties of citizenship vital to black interests; and that they preferred the separation of the races to association with whites.
And so did Marcus Garvey’s movement for racial pride and self-determination. Garvey convinced millions of blacks to believe in their ability to shape their destiny. A true visionary, he aroused African-Americans to affirm their Africanness and urged the redemption of Africa from European control. A master showman, Garvey dramatized the extreme plight of African-Americans and the desperate necessity of change. An intuitive psychologist, he radicalized the powerless by instilling in them a sense of their potential power. And as a persuasive teacher, the Jamaican leader convinced masses of Negroes that white racism and not black failings explained their lowly status.
In the 1930s, these stirrings began to innervate the struggle for black equality. The proponents of civil rights no longer stood alone. They fought alongside radicals pressing for class unity unhampered by racial divisions, labor leaders wanting strong unions, ethnic and political minorities desiring greater security for themselves from a strong central government that would protect constitutional rights, and liberals battling Southern opponents of the New Deal. African-Americans also benefited from the new ideological consensus emerging in the academic community that undermined racism by accentuating the influence of environment and by downplaying innate characteristics. It stressed the damage done to individuals by prejudice and the costs to the nation of discrimination. It demolished the stereotype of the African-American as a contented buffoon. Intellectually, white supremacy was now on the defensive.
The New Deal’s substantive and symbolic aid to African-Americans further stimulated hope for racial reforms. With some success, the New Deal insisted on equality of treatment in its relief programs. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed over a hundred blacks to administrative posts, and the number of African-American federal employees tripled in the 1930s. The Roosevelt Administration began the desegregation of federal rest rooms, cafeterias, and secretarial pools. A host of government publications and conferences made explicit the federal government’s responsibility for issues of human rights. Never before, moreover, had a First Lady and so many high-level government officials been associated so closely with civil-rights groups. On a wide variety of racial issues, prominent whites legitimated the aspirations of blacks. This was especially true of Roosevelt’s appointees to the Supreme Court. Their decisions in the late 1930s increasingly made the African-American less a freedman and more a free man.
Nevertheless, the basic conditions of life for most blacks barely changed in the thirties. Civil rights had begun to emerge as a major national concern but disenfranchisement and discrimination remained the rule, and the “job ceiling” kept blacks in the lowest-paid positions. The majority of whites, enslaved by fear, ignorance, and prejudice, favored neither desegregation nor equal opportunities for blacks. And most blacks, still plagued by poverty and powerlessness, could not yet battle the inequities destroying them.
That changed during the Second World War. The ideological character of the war and the government’s need for the loyalty and manpower of all Americans stimulated blacks to demand a better deal. Many responded with a militancy never before seen in black communities. Membership in the NAACP multiplied nearly ten times, to a half a million. The Congress of Racial Equality, organized in 1942, experimented with nonviolent direct action to challenge Jim Crow; and A. Philip Randolph attempted to build his March-on-Washington Committee into an all-black mass protest movement. In 1941, his threat of a massive black march on Washington, combined with the growth of the African-American vote and the exigencies of the defense effort, led Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802. The first Presidential directive on race since Reconstruction, it established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices and prohibited discriminatory employment practices by unions and companies with government contracts or engaged in war-related work. The FEPC and the desperate labor shortage caused by the draft and booming war production resulted in some two million blacks gaining employment in defense plants and another two hundred thousand entering the federal civil service. By 1945, black membership in labor unions had doubled to 1,250,000.
Still other barriers crumbled during the war. The army integrated its officer-training program and the marines and navy opened their ranks to blacks for a variety of duties other than messmen. Liberals repeatedly emphasized that the practices of white supremacy impeded the war effort and brought into disrepute the stated war aims of the United States. And over seven hundred thousand blacks pulled up stakes in the South to find a new home outside Dixie. By the end of the war, blacks had gained enough from the expansion in jobs and income, from service in the armed forces, and from the massive urbanization of the African-American population to foresee an assault on white supremacy, and such African-American veterans as Harry Briggs of South Carolina and Medgar Evers of Mississippi came home to enlist in the battle.
But the renewed campaign for black equality would proceed slowly and haltingly at first. In part, the Second World War muted black protest. While discrimination in defense employment and in the armed services had stimulated militancy early in the war, the prolonged involvement of the United States in what it viewed as a war for survival dampened that militancy. Winning the war as speedily as possible with the least possible loss of American lives overrode all other concerns. Few took kindly to anything that threatened that goal, such as a war against racism at home. The nation demanded unity not division, consensus not conflict. Accordingly, few black leaders after 1942 flirted with any tactic or strategy that might remotely be considered to harm the war effort, and the belligerence of blacks dramatically decreased. The race riots in 1943, particularly in Detroit and Harlem, further frightened the black leadership, causing it to concentrate on reducing black assertive behavior of any kind. “Good Conduct” campaigns and the control of racial rumors took precedence over actively combatting segregation and discrimination. A poll by the Pittsburgh Courier in the midst of the war showed 71 percent of African-Americans opposed to a March on Washington to protest discrimination, a sharp turn from the mood of 1941. So did the fact that every major civil-rights spokesman and Negro newspaper denounced A. Philip Randolph’s 1943 call for civil disobedience against Jim Crow, and that CORE’s efforts to involve large numbers of blacks in militant direct action came to naught. While the war brought revolutionary changes in American life that would eventually make possible a successful black campaign for racial justice, in the short run it hampered the growth of mass black protest.
In part, the very steps taken toward racial justice after a half a century of deteriorating race relations beguiled civil-rights leaders. They chose, in the words of a popular song of the day, “to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” With pride they ballyhooed the increasing number of “Negro firsts,” listing the advances made by individual blacks. Their loud cheers for Jackie Robinson’s crossing the color line in major-league baseball drowned out their quiet grumbling at the black Brooklyn Dodger not being allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates and at the overwhelming extent of segregation remaining throughout professional and amateur sports. They made far more of the honors accorded Dr. Julian Perry, the renowned black scientist, than of the news of firebombing of his home by whites who would not accept the presence of an African-American in their neighborhood. Indeed, while African-American spokesmen confidently counted on the benefits to be derived from the migration of blacks northward, the white trek to the suburbs of the North became an exodus. At the close of the 1950s, whites outnumbered blacks in the suburbs by a ratio of more than thirty-five to one. A new color line, just as effective as the old, still kept the United States two nations—separate and unequal.
The Negro press, similarly, went to great lengths to publicize the jump in the number of blacks registered to vote in the South, from 250,000 in 1940 to over a million in 1950, but downplayed the fact that three out of four adult blacks in Dixie still could not vote. Headlines trumpeted the election of blacks to the governing councils of Richmond and Nashville in 1948 and 1951. Yet hundreds of counties deprived blacks of any voice in government whatsoever, and blacks throughout the South remained politically powerless. In scores of articles and speeches, moreover, the leadership of civil-rights organizations played up the Negro vote in the North as the “balance of power,” and credited it with providing the margin of victory for Harry Truman in 1948. After the election, however, President Truman refused to press Congress to enact civil-rights legislation and did nothing to implement the Supreme Court’s 1950 decision against segregation in interstate commerce. Nevertheless, the NAACP’s balance sheet in race relations that year highlighted signs of progress and optimistically concluded: “Some might call these mere straws in the wind, but they do indicate the direction in which the wind is blowing.”
The widespread anticipation of even greater progress in race relations further muffled African-American protest. Basic changes in American society gave blacks hope that discrimination and segregation would soon be overcome. None was more important than the elephantine growth of the American economy. The Gross National Product rose from $206 billion in 1940 to $285 billion in 1950, and then to nearly $400 billion in 1955. The number of civilian jobs increased from 54 million at the end of World War II to 60 million in 1950, to 63 million in 1955. Personal expenditures leaped in these same years from $122 million to $195 million to $257 million. This spectacular rate of economic growth made possible an increasing income for blacks, their entry into industries and labor unions previously closed to blacks, and a gain in occupational status as the constant shortage of workers necessitated a slackening of restrictive promotion policies. Between 1940 and 1960, the median income of African-Americans more than doubled. The huge growth of the economy, moreover, meant that the advancement of blacks did not have to come at the expense of whites, thus undermining perhaps the most powerful source of white resistance to black progress.
The effect of economic changes on race relations was particularly marked in the South. The rapid industrialization of Dixie after 1940 ended the dominance of the cotton culture. With it went the need for a vast black underclass of unskilled laborers. Power began to shift from rural areas to the cities, and from tradition-oriented landed families to the new officers in absentee-owned corporations who reckoned segregation to be a costly anachronism. Industrialization also accelerated urbanization and the migration to the South of millions of white-collar employees and their families who had little stake in the perpetuation of the rural color-caste system. The “New South,” many prophesied, would be far more concerned with profits and economic expansion than with outdated racial mores. Industry required a broadly educated labor force and markets unhampered by racial divisions.
In addition, changes in the economy radically affected black migration. The mechanization of cotton production pushed blacks off the farms and the lure of jobs pulled them to the cities. Over a million would leave the South in the 1940s, and another million and a half in the fifties. This mass migration fundamentally altered the configuration of the race problem. It became national in scope. No longer affecting only one region, it could not now be left in the hands of Southern whites. It also both modified the objective conditions of life for blacks and changed their perceptions of goals and tactics. Freed from the confines of a rigid caste system, subject to urban formative experiences, and congregated in numbers large enough to foster group consciousness and solidarity, African-Americans developed new norms and beliefs. Aggression could be turned against one’s oppressor rather than against one’s self, more employment and educational opportunities could be secured, and political power could be mobilized. The promise of a better world in the next one would not suffice. The urban black would not wait for his rewards until the afterlife, and enfranchisement promised all in this life that religion did in the next. The New Deal and the Second World War, moreover, had corroded the doctrines of localism and decentralization which had blocked hope for a federal effort to guarantee blacks either civil rights or economic opportunity.
The new prominence of the United States as a world power further presaged black advancement. During World War II, millions of Americans became aware for the first time of the danger of racism to national security. Japan focused on the United States’ racist treatment of nonwhites as the core of its propaganda campaign to win the loyalty of the colored peoples of China, India, and Latin America. Each lynching and race riot was publicized by the Axis as proof of the hypocrisy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. The costs of racism went even higher during the Cold War. The Soviet Union undercut American appeals to the nations of Africa and Asia by highlighting the ill treatment of blacks in the United States. Rarely in the first two decades after the Second World War did a plea for civil rights before the Supreme Court, on the floor of Congress, or emanating from the White House, fail to emphasize the point that white racism adversely affected American relations with the nonwhite majority of the world. The rapid growth of independence movements among the world’s colored peoples had special significance for African-Americans. They proved the feasibility of change and the vulnerability of white supremacy, while at the same time aiding African-Americans to see themselves as members of a world majority rather than as a hopelessly outnumbered American minority.
The further decline in intellectual respectability of racist ideas also convinced blacks that the winds of change blew their way. The excesses of Nazism and the decline of Western imperialism combined with internal developments in various academic disciplines to discredit the pseudo-scientific rationalizations once popularly accepted as the basis for white supremacy. Books and essays attacking racial injustice and inequality, epitomized by Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, dominated discourse on the subject.
These fundamental transpositions made it easy to believe that continued progress would be automatic, that just a bit more legal action or political pressure would suffice to usher in a new era in race relations. The demise of Jim Crow would necessitate neither struggle nor sacrifice, neither radical strategies nor disruptive tactics. This faith, obviating the need for mass black direct action, also reflected the conservative American mood after World War II. After more than a decade of rapid, bewildering change, and exhausting battles against the Great Depression and the Axis, the vast majority wanted surcease. Most Americans yearned for stability. They desired harmony. The fear of increasingly rapid social change hampered support for anything thought extremist, even reformist.
White supremacists, moreover, played on the obsessive American fear of Communism to discredit the civil-rights cause. They equated challenges to the racial status quo with un-Americanism, and missed no opportunity to link the black struggle with Communist ideology and subversion. In the heyday of red-baiting after World War II, these tactics worked. Most civil-rights groups avoided direct action. Their leadership opted for a conservative posture to avoid even a hint of radicalism. When a small interracial band of pacifists and socialists from the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation journeyed throughout the upper South to test compliance of a Supreme Court ruling against segregation in interstate travel, the Negro press barely reported the news, and other civil-rights organizations shunned the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. The following year they opposed A. Philip Randolph’s call for civil disobedience to protest Jim Crow in the armed forces. With undue haste, the civil-rights leadership condemned the pro-Soviet remarks of Paul Robeson, a controversial black singer and actor, and disassociated themselves from the Marxist stance of W. E. B. Du Bois. The fear of McCarthyism so inhibited blacks that they failed to use the Korean War as a lever for racial reform, as they had World War II. At mid-century, direct action had ceased being a tactic in the quest for racial justice.
That suited the NAACP hierarchy. Never entirely at ease with the black mass actions during the New Deal and early war years, the NAACP became less a protest organization and more an agency of litigation and lobbying after World War II. No longer fearing that competition from more combative black groups would overshadow the NAACP, its branches in the South concentrated on voter registration, while those in the North endeavored to secure fair-employment and fair-housing ordinances. By 1953, twelve states and thirty cities had adopted fair-employment laws of varying effectiveness. Median black-family income rose from $1,614 to $2,338 between 1947 and 1952. As a percentage of median white-family income, black earnings jumped from 41 percent in 1940 to 51 percent in 1949, and to 57 percent in 1952. That year, nearly 40 percent of blacks were engaged in professional, white-collar, skilled, and semi-skilled work, double the proportion of 1940. The life expectancy of blacks increased from 53.1 years in 1940 to 61.7 years in 1953, compared to 64.2 and 69.6 for whites, and the proportion of black families owning their homes went from 25 percent to 30 percent in the forties. Meanwhile, the proportion of blacks aged five to nineteen enrolled in school leaped from 60 percent in 1930 to 68.4 percent in 1940, to 74.8 percent in 1950. That figure still lagged behind the 79.3 percent of whites in school, but the gap had narrowed dramatically. And the number of blacks in college had soared from about 27,000 in 1930 to over 113,000 in 1950.
Such gains apparently justified the NAACP’s approach and secured its hegemony in race relations. The national office and legal staff at midcentury marshaled all their resources for a courtroom assault on de jure school segregation. Many blacks believed integrated education to be the main route to racial equality. No other African-American protest group put forth an alternative strategy of social change. By 1954, all the hopes of blacks rested on the success of the NAACP litigation. It had become an article of faith that a Supreme Court decision ruling school segregation unconstitutional would cause the quick death of Jim Crow in America.
The first major crack in the edifice of school segregation had come in 1938, when the NAACP won a Supreme Court ruling which held that an out-of-state scholarship to a black Missourian wishing to study law at the University of Missouri denied that student the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the constitution. The Court declared that Missouri could not exclude blacks from its law school when it offered African-Americans only out-of-state tuition grants as an alternative. Hoping to make segregation so prohibitively expensive that the South would dismantle its biracial system because of the financial burden, the NAACP launched a series of suits seeking complete equality in facilities governed by the separate-but-equal rule. Then, emboldened by the strides made by blacks during the Second World War, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, led by Thurgood Marshall and based on a foundation of scores of courageous African-American plaintiffs, shifted from skirmishes on the inequality of separate facilities to a direct attack on segregation itself. Marshall hoped his strategy would force the Court to overrule Plessy, the 1896 opinion that declared segregation no infringement on civil rights if the states provided blacks with separate accommodations equal to those given to whites. Marshall’s work resulted first in three unanimous decisions on a single day in 1950 which demolished the separate-but-equal façade. The high court struck down Jim Crow on railway dining cars in the South; it ruled that if a state chose not to establish an equal and separate school for blacks, then it could not segregate blacks within the white school; and, lastly, the tribunal so emphasized the importance of “intangible factors” in determining the equality of separate schools that separate-but-equal no longer seemed possible. Although the Supreme Court held that it was not necessary to reexamine Plessy to grant relief to the three black plaintiffs, the 1950 decisions made the end of segregated schooling for students at all levels a near-certainty.
Working closely with the grassroots leadership of the local chapters, Marshall began to coordinate a series of lawsuits in 1951 charging segregated education with being discriminatory per se, even if the facilities were equal. In Clarendon County, South Carolina, the NAACP sued in the name of several black schoolchildren, and in Prince Edward County, Virginia, they represented black high-school students. In New Castle County, Delaware, and in the District of Columbia, Marshall filed suits on behalf of both elementary and high-school black students. And in Topeka, Kansas, the NAACP argued the case of Oliver Brown, who sought to enjoin enforcement of a state law that permitted cities to maintain segregated schools, which forced his eight-year-old daughter, Linda, to travel a mile by bus to reach a black school even though she lived only three blocks from an all-white elementary school. Risking their jobs and lives, the plaintiffs persisted, and on December 9, 1952, the Supreme Court heard oral argument on all five cases, combined and docketed under the name of the petitioner listed first—Oliver Brown. Unexpectedly, the NAACP was aided by the Truman Administration, which, in its last days, filed a brief as a friend of the Court arguing against the constitutionality of segregation.
The Supreme Court initially divided on the question of overturning Plessy. After several months of discussion, two justices changed their mind, creating a slim majority in favor of the NAACP’s contention. Now the question became whether the justices in the minority could be likewise persuaded. To that end, the Court voted for a reargument. It asked the litigants to prepare answers to questions pertaining to the intentions of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, the power of the Court to abolish segregation in the schools, and, if the tribunal did have such a right and chose to exercise it, whether the Supreme Court could permit gradual desegregation or did it have to order an instant end to segregation. While the lawyers revised their briefs, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died suddenly in the summer of 1953. The new President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, appointed California Governor Earl Warren to fill the vacant post. Vinson had sought to avoid ruling on Plessy, and in all likelihood, two other justices would have voted with him, resulting in either a further postponement on the constitutionality of school segregation or a seriously split decision.
Following the reargument, which began on December 7 and lasted for three days, the nation waited for what commentators predicted would be a historic decision. But for half a year the Court remained silent. Behind closed doors, the bickering and bargaining continued. A clear majority of the justices wanted to void segregation in the schools and to reverse Plessy. Two justices held out, and Warren kept postponing the decision, hoping he could gain their concurrence. Above all, the Chief Justice wanted the Court’s ruling to be unanimous. Anything less on a social issue so sensitive, on a political question so explosive, would destroy the chance for full compliance by Southern whites. So, patiently, Warren beseeched and compromised. Finally, early in May, the two dissenters gave the Chief Justice their assent.
By Monday, May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruling on school segregation had been so overdue that many forgot its imminence. The morning’s newspapers gave no hint that a decision would be announced. Most journalists in Washington speculated on the consequences of a French loss of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, on the outcome of the Army—McCarthy hearings, and on the chances for more rain. Even those reporters seated in the ornate chamber of the Supreme Court did not anticipate that the segregation decision would be announced when the Court convened at noon.
After forty minutes of routine business, the Chief Justice leaned forward and began to read: “I have for announcement the judgment and opinion of the Court in No. I—Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka.” Warren traced the paths that led the cases to the Supreme Court and reviewed the history of the Fourteenth Amendment, finding it “inconclusive” in relation to school segregation because public education, particularly in the South, had barely developed in the 1860s. “Today,” the Chief Justice continued, “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Since it is the key to opportunity and advancement in American life, public education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” On this premise, he came to the nub of the matter: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?”
Warren paused. “We believe that it does.” Buttressed by a footnote citing several contemporary studies on the psychological effects of segregation, the former governor contended that the separation of black children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” He ended in a rising voice. “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Blacks shouted hosannas as they heard the news. They hailed Marshall, the black lawyer who had used the white man’s laws before an all-white Supreme Court to win a verdict voiding segregation. Their jubilant leaders vied in choosing superlatives to laud the decision. Brown would be the precedent for declaring unconstitutional any state-imposed or enforced segregation. African-Americans in pursuit of full citizenship rights now had not only morality on their side but the law as well. Surely, most rhapsodized, a new day in race relations had dawned. Brown promised a truly equal education for black children in integrated classrooms throughout the nation. More, it offered the real beginning of a multiracial society. Robert Williams of North Carolina, who would later urge African-Americans to get guns to assert their due, remembered: “My inner emotions must have been approximate to the Negro slaves’ when they first heard about the Emancipation Proclamation…. I felt that at last the government was willing to assert itself on behalf of first-class citizenship, even for Negroes. I experienced a sense of loyalty that I had never felt before. I was sure that this was the beginning of a new era of American democracy.” Brown heightened the aspirations and expectations of African-Americans as nothing before had. It proved that the Southern segregation system could be challenged and defeated. It proved that change was possible. Nearly a century after their professed freedom had been stalled, compromised, and stolen, blacks confidently anticipated being free and equal at last.
Little in the next year shook this faith. Few Dixie politicians rushed to echo Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland that the South “will not abide by nor obey this legislative decision by a political court.” Most educators foresaw scant difficulty in putting the court ruling into effect. According to a New York Times survey of school officials, none thought “that the threats to abandon the public school system would be carried out…. No one expected any violence or any real crisis to develop.” Several hundred school districts in the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) and in states with local option on segregation (Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming) quickly and peacefully integrated their classrooms, as did the District of Columbia at President Eisenhower’s direction.
Then, on May 31, 1955, the momentum stopped. Just fifty-four weeks after the Supreme Court had taken a giant stride toward the demise of Jim Crow, it stepped backward. Its implementation decision on the Brown ruling rejected the NAACP’s plea to order instant and total school desegregation. The justices, instead, adopted the “go slow” approach advocated by the Justice Department and by the attorneys general of the Southern states. The Court assigned the responsibility for drawing up plans for desegregation to local school authorities and left it to local federal judges to determine the pace of desegregation, requiring only that a “prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance” be made and that desegregation proceed “with all deliberate speed.” Acknowledging the potential for difficulties, the Supreme Court refused to set a deadline and authorized delays when necessary. For the first time, the Supreme Court had vindicated a constitutional right and then deferred its exercise.
However much the Warren Court foresaw the endless round of further litigation and obstruction this invited, circumstances dictated the decision for gradualism. It was the price of unanimity in Brown v. Board of Education, the compromise needed to keep two justices from dissenting. Warren deeply believed that a divided Court on so sensitive an issue “would have been catastrophic,” that only a unanimous desegregation decision stood a chance of public support.
He accepted gradualism to allay the fears of those justices who worried that the Court’s inability to enforce a momentous ruling would discredit the judicial process. The compromise also reflected the unpopularity of Brown in the South. Public-opinion polls showed more than 80 percent of white Southerners opposed to school desegregation, and the Supreme Court hoped to head off resistance to the law of the land by permitting the change to be piecemeal. To order immediate school desegregation, the Court reckoned, would force most Southern politicians to take up the cudgels of defiance to federal authority, an action only a tiny minority had taken to date. The Justices sought to contain the rebellion, since they could not count on the other branches of the federal government.
No help would come from the White House. President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to endorse or support the Brown ruling. Covetous of the votes of white Southerners and wedded to a restrictive view of Presidential authority, Eisenhower stated that he would express neither “approbation nor disapproval” of Brown v. Board of Education. He lumped together those who demanded compliance with the Court decision and those who obstructed it, publicly denouncing “extremists on both sides.” To one of his aides, Eisenhower emphasized: “I am convinced that the Supreme Court decision set back progress in the South at least fifteen years…. It’s all very well to talk about school integration—if you remember you may also be talking about social disintegration. Feelings are deep on this…. And the fellow who tries to tell me that you can do these things by force is just plain nuts.”
Eisenhower preferred change as a result of education, rather than coercion. But he would not educate. The President rejected pleas that he tour the South seeking compliance, or call a conference of Southern moderates, or appeal on television to the nation for understanding. He simply did not favor school desegregation, much as he had never approved desegregation of the armed forces. Eisenhower regretted he had ever appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, calling it “the biggest damfool mistake I ever made.” And the titular head of the Democratic Party, Adlai Stevenson, barely differed on this issue from his GOP rival. Stevenson asked that the white South be “given time and patience,” rejected the idea of using federal troops to enforce court-ordered desegregation, and opposed all proposals that would bar federal aid to schools maintaining segregation.
To be sure, no danger existed in the mid-fifties that Congress would legislate to speed desegregation. A conservative coalition of Midwestern Republicans and Southern Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate, guarding against any infringement on states rights. Not content merely to stonewall any move to support Brown, Southern congressmen mobilized in 1956 to fight against what Senator Richard Russell of Georgia termed “a flagrant abuse of judicial power” and what Virginia Senator Harry Byrd called “the most serious blow that has been struck against the rights of the states.” On March 12, 1956, 101 members of Congress from the South signed a “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” asking their states to refuse to obey the desegregation order. Labeling Brown “unwarranted” and “contrary to the Constitution,” the Southern manifesto proclaimed that the Supreme Court possessed no power to demand an end to segregation, that only a state, and not the federal government, can decide whether a school should be segregated or not, and that the states would be in the right in opposing the Court’s order.
The manifesto, along with Eisenhower’s silence and the Supreme Court’s paradoxical “deliberate speed” ruling, ushered in an era of massive resistance to the law of the land in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy. Defiance of the Court and the Constitution became the touchstone of Southern loyalty, the necessary proof of one’s concern for the security of the white race. With the overwhelming support of the South’s white press and pulpit, segregationist politicians resurrected John C. Calhoun’s notions of “interposition” and “nullification” to thwart federal authority.
White supremacists first resorted to stalling, doing nothing until confronted with a federal-court injunction. This forced black parents and NAACP attorneys to initiate individual desegregation suits in the more than two thousand Southern school districts. Usually, the black plaintiffs faced economic intimidation by the local white-power structure; often they risked physical harm; always, they encountered repeated postponements due to crowded court dockets and motions for delay by school authorities. After years of harassment to the plaintiffs, mounting legal costs to the NAACP, lost jobs, mortgages foreclosed, loans denied, and incalculable psychological damage to blacks due to threats and fear, school authorities would finally come up with a plan for the most limited, token desegregation.
Then black schoolchildren had to face the horrors of racist resistance. In one school district after another, segregationists forced young African-Americans to walk a gantlet of hate, fear, and ignorance, to pass by rock-throwing mobs and pickets shrieking “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” They pressured white teachers to ignore or persecute the black students, and encouraged white children to torment and threaten their new black classmates. “‘If you come back to school, I’ll cut your guts out!’ could be heard in the halls,” recalled a Tennessee high-school teacher. “Eggs smashed on their books, ink smeared on their clothes, in the lockers, knives flourished in their presence, nails tossed in their faces and spiked in their seats. Vulgar words constantly whispered in their ears.” The harassment proved too much for some blacks. They reenrolled their children in segregated schools; they moved to other towns and states. But more and more blacks endured the hatred and persisted in their struggle for dignity and equality.
To frustrate such black courage, segregationists pressed for new laws to obstruct integration. “As long as we can legislate, we can segregate,” said one white supremacist, and the Southern states rushed pell-mell to enact more than 450 laws and resolutions to prevent or limit school desegregation. Some acts required schools faced with desegregation orders to cease operation; others revoked the license of any teacher who taught mixed classes; still more amended compulsory-attendance laws, so that no child could be required to enroll in an integrated school, and provided for state payments of private-academy tuition, so that districts could abolish their public-school system rather than desegregate.
Of all the legislative tactics of massive resistance, none proved more successful than the pupil-placement law. Theoretically, it guaranteed each child “freedom of choice” in the selection of a school. Local authorities could not consider race in assigning pupils to particular schools. But they could accept or reject transfer applications on such criteria as, in the Georgia law, “the psychological qualification of the pupil,” “the psychological effect upon the pupil of attendance at a particular school,” and “the morals, conduct, health and personal standards of the pupil.” Invariably, school boards assigned black and white children to different schools. In 1958, moreover, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the pupil-placement laws, which were nondiscriminatory at face value but which actually maintained school systems as rigidly segregated as those which the justices had struck down four years earlier.
To frustrate blacks further, most of the Southern states also passed measures to hound and harass the NAACP, which had almost singlehandedly carried the campaign for school desegregation. Various laws required the NAACP to make public its membership lists, made membership a cause for dismissal of public-school teachers and state employees, charged the association with committing “barratry” (the persistent instigation of lawsuits), and made it a crime for organizations to cause trouble by attacking local segregation ordinances. By 1958 the NAACP had lost 246 branches in the South, and the South’s percentage of the NAACP’s total membership had dropped from nearly 50 percent to just about 25 percent. In time, the Supreme Court struck down all the anti-NAACP laws, but for several years the association was forced to divert energy, money, and talent away from the desegregation battle to the fight for its own survival.
Not content with legal measures of obstruction, hostile segregationists preached violent resistance. Virulent rabble-rousers, often with the approval of the South’s respected spokesmen, stirred up the region’s whites to attack blacks insisting on their constitutional rights. The Ku Klux Klan revived. Zealots across the South organized new klaverns, donned their white hoods and robes, and burned crosses to terrorize blacks. Too respectable to join the low-status KKK, thousands of middle-class whites rushed to enroll in the White Citizens’ Councils, the National Association for the Advancement of White People, and the American States Rights Association. They wore no masks but proved just as determined as the Klan to defy Brown and enforce racial orthodoxy, by intimidation if possible and by insurrection if necessary. Together, the KKK, the Councils, and a host of local vigilante committees brought riots and violent demonstrations to the South at the start of the school year each September.
Their lawless behavior, often directed at young children, outraged millions of Americans who did not live in the South. Most Northerners cared little about school desegregation in Dixie and considered the NAACP too militant. Nevertheless, they were shocked at the news headlines of schools being dynamite-bombed and the televised scenes of hate-filled white mobs. Time and again in the decade ahead, such racist extremism would discredit the cause of the white South and force a majority of otherwise unconcerned citizens to demand that the federal government act to preserve order. It happened first in Little Rock.
A New South city, Little Rock appeared an unlikely battleground in the fight over school desegregation. It had a racially moderate mayor, congressman, and newspaper, and a governor not known to be a race-baiter. Several other Arkansas communities had peacefully begun to desegregate, as had the state university, and, after a bit of stalling, Little Rock’s school board acceded to a federal court order to admit nine blacks to Central High, a school with some two thousand white students, as the first step toward integration. A model of gradualism and deference to the whites of Little Rock, the desegregation process would take eight years to complete. Indeed, the only vocal opposition to it came from the local NAACP, which denounced the process as too token and too slow.
In 1957, however, the winds of resistance howled. A storm of racial demagoguery swept the South. Politicians shouted defiance of the Supreme Court and vied in pledging unyielding opposition to Brown. Some vowed they would go to jail rather than desegregate; some swore they would die rather than permit integration. Those who counseled moderation customarily came in second and, like George C. Wallace in Alabama, promised: “They outniggered me that time, but they’ll never do it again.” In Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus believed he faced a difficult fight for reelection. But he found the answer to his ambitions in the political climate. He would campaign as the preeminent defender of white supremacy. He would “outnigger” his racist opponents. He would obstruct the federal court order in Little Rock.
On September 2, the evening before Arkansas schools were to reopen, Faubus went on television to announce that it would “not be possible to restore or to maintain order if forcible integration is carried out tomorrow,” despite the fact that no Little Rock officials then anticipated trouble. He ordered a National Guard contingent to Central High School. Ostensibly, their mission was to prevent violence. But when the nine black students sought to enter the school on September 3, the guardsmen barred their way. “Governor Faubus has placed this school off limits to Negroes,” announced a National Guard spokesman. The federal district court in Arkansas again insisted that desegregation begin and ordered the governor to show cause why he should not be enjoined from interfering with the school board’s plan. When the black students prepared to enter Central High the following day, a milling crowd of angry whites shouted: “Niggers. Niggers. They’re coming. Here they come!” The guardsmen once again barred the African-Americans seeking to enroll in Central High. The authority of the federal government and of a state had directly clashed. National attention now focused on President Eisenhower, who was constitutionally required to enforce the law of the land.
Eisenhower had no desire to do so. He had never offered leadership on racial matters. He considered Brown a mistake. His belief in the limits of federal power and his fondness for states’ rights combined to make the President highly reluctant to intervene in Little Rock. “You cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws,” he told a press conference that week, adding a grave remark about the white South’s concern for the “mongrelization of the race.” The general believed Dixie ripe for Republicanism. He had won four Southern states in 1952, and five in 1956. Looking ahead to 1960, Eisenhower was determined to avoid any action that would reestablish the Democratic grip on the mass of white Southern voters. Purposefully, he would do nothing to rally public opinion behind desegregation. Yet he could not ignore Faubus’s defiance of a federal court order, and television had made Little Rock the focus of national attention. To give the appearance of action without really acting, Eisenhower met with the governor on September 14. Both politicians talked truce and temporized.
On September 20, the federal district court repeated its order to the governor to stop interfering with school desegregation in Little Rock. Predicting bloodshed, Faubus withdrew the National Guard from Central High and left the state. However, several of the governor’s henchmen, adept at mobilizing mob violence, remained in Little Rock. By early Monday morning, September 23, over a thousand shrieking white protesters surrounded the high school. Racists from across the South had flocked to the city to prevent the blacks from entering the school. While white students sang “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate,” the mob jeered “Niggers, keep away from our school. Go back to the jungle.” Over and over the crowd reassured itself: “The niggers won’t get in.” Suddenly someone roared: “They’ve gone in!” “Oh, my God!” a woman cried. “The niggers are inside!” “They’re in!” others screamed. “They’re in!” “The niggers are in our school.” Some began a new chant: “Come on out! Come on out!” Groups of white students exited from Central High to shouts of approval, stimulating louder importuning, and more white students left the school. The mayor, fearful of violence, ordered the nine blacks withdrawn.
That evening President Eisenhower appeared on television to denounce the “disgraceful occurrence” at Little Rock. Aware that the unruly segregationist mob had riveted world attention on Little Rock, he issued a proclamation directing those who had obstructed federal law “to cease and desist.” But an even larger mob milled about Central High the next morning and school board officials dreaded inflaming the howling protesters by forcing the entry of the nine blacks. Eisenhower responded by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and dispatching a thousand troops of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. The next morning, with fixed bayonets, the paratroopers dispersed the crowd and led the black students into Central High School. Armed troops remained in the school for two months, escorting the nine blacks to their classes. Then the President replaced the paratroopers with federalized Arkansas guardsmen, who continued to patrol Central High for the rest of the year.
Southern extremism had forced Eisenhower’s hand. Not to have acted, he ruefully told a Southern senator, would have been “tantamount to acquiescence in anarchy and the dissolution of the union.” As a last resort he dispatched federal troops to uphold national supremacy, defend Presidential authority, and enforce the law of the land. In so doing, Eisenhower became the first President since Reconstruction to use armed troops to protect African-American citizens and their constitutional rights.
Also in 1957, Congress enacted civil-rights legislation for the first time since Reconstruction. This further bolstered black aspirations. More a symbolic milestone than an act to increase black registration, Congress formally declared illegal the disenfranchisement of African-Americans.
Attorney General Herbert Brownell began early in 1956 to press President Eisenhower to propose a civil-rights bill. Whether or not Congress passed it, Brownell argued, such a proposal would highlight the North-South split in the Democratic Party and bolster the image of the party of Lincoln with Northern black voters. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Brownell knew that, in 1956, blacks constituted about 5 percent of the voters in fourteen states which held 261 electoral votes. Brownell also sensed the widespread dissatisfaction with the Democrats among blacks, who blamed the party of Byrd and Eastland for the massive resistance to desegregation. The opportunity now existed, he pleaded with the President, to end the black allegiance to the Democrats that had been firm since 1936.
Eisenhower demurred. “I personally believe if you try to go too far too fast in laws in this delicate field that has involved the emotions of so many millions of Americans,” he said at a press conference, “you are making a mistake.” Eisenhower had his eyes on the votes of Southern whites resistant to change. He wanted to make the Republican Party of limited government the new home of conservative Southern states’ righters and decided not to support any civil-rights legislation before the 1956 election. Democratic congressional leaders sighed with relief. The last thing they wanted on the eve of a Presidential contest was a divisive intra-party squabble on civil rights.
Immediately after the election, however, Eisenhower requested suffrage legislation and the Senate majority leader, Democrat Lyndon Johnson of Texas, agreed to work for its passage. Unwilling to accept continued Democratic stalling on civil rights, Harlem’s congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., had bolted to Ike in 1956 and brought tens of thousands of black votes into the GOP column. The President had a substantially increased proportion of the black vote over 1952, winning black majorities in at least a score of cities. This caused Republicans looking ahead to an even better record in black communities in 1960, especially Vice-President Richard Nixon, to press Eisenhower to support civil rights. At the same time, the popularity of Republicanism among African-Americans in 1956 frightened Northern Democrats. They were determined to win back the black votes the GOP had gained; they believed that enacting civil-rights legislation was the only way to do it. Democratic liberals would no longer sacrifice their own political needs in deference to those of their Southern brethren. Johnson, meanwhile, sought both to hold the Democratic Party together and to foster his own Presidential aspirations. He thought he could do so by fashioning a moderate civil-rights act, one not odious enough to alienate his Southern backing yet significant enough to enable him to shed his reputation as a Southern white supremacist.
The politics of expediency, not surprisingly, produced a compromise bill. The forces fighting for and against civil rights each gained a little and gave up a bit, as did Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Northerners and Southerners. Steering a middle course between reform and reaction, Eisenhower and Johnson won enactment of a mild bill palatable to most. The 1957 civil-rights act authorized the Justice Department to seek injunctions against interference with the right to vote and established a Commission on Civil Rights empowered to investigate, appraise, and report. The law ignored the issue of segregation and barely reduced the resistance to black voting by Southern election officials or the intimidation tactics of vigilante groups opposed to black enfranchisement. Still, most civil-rights proponents argued that a half loaf is better than no bread at all. “Roy, if there’s one thing I have learned in politics,” Senator Hubert Humphrey confided to Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, “it’s never to turn your back on a crumb.” Wilkins agreed, but changed the metaphor: “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon, and a man comes along and offers you a spade, there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”
After three years of registration drives which added fewer than two hundred thousand blacks to the voting lists, an increase of just 3 percent, the NAACP again demanded suffrage legislation, and the dynamics of election-year politics again resulted in an emasculated civil-rights act. The 1960 palliative authorized the courts to appoint federal referees to safeguard voting rights and made it a federal offense to obstruct court orders by violent means. Too weak to have any real impact on Southern voting, the measure still signified the growing strength of the civil-rights alliance.
All these initial, halting, partial moves by the federal government to assist the cause of black equality resulted in intensifying the struggle. They produced among blacks both expectations that Jim Crow could soon be eliminated from American life and a growing rage toward all temporizing. Cumulatively they generated a determination that segregation and discrimination, however wrong and unconstitutional, would cease only when blacks themselves acted militantly enough to guarantee that end.
By enacting civil-rights legislation for the first time since 1875, Congress did much to legitimatize black aspirations for first-class citizenship. The termination of a Southern filibuster after 125 hours in 1960 encouraged blacks to believe that racial justice could be attained within the constitutional framework. The two voting-rights acts inspired African-Americans to attempt to register and to insist on other rights. But the patent weakness of the measures convinced them that they still did not have effective political power. Legislation, moreover, needed to be implemented to produce real change, and neither the Justice Department nor the federal judges in the South evinced much enthusiasm to utilize the two laws to promote black voting. In the 1960 elections, less than one in four eligible blacks could vote in the South. Disappointed, African-Americans questioned the legislative tactics of the NAACP, which placed a premium on neither provoking the black masses nor embittering the white majority, and the preference of Roy Wilkins for a quiet, diplomatic campaign rather than “the kind that picks a fight with the sheriff and gets somebody’s head beaten.”
The crisis at Little Rock similarly engendered black faith and frustration. Eisenhower’s use of federal force to protect black rights inspired confidence that Southern extremism would not be tolerated. Bolstering such assurance, some 90 percent of the whites outside the South questioned in a Gallup poll stated that Eisenhower had been right in sending troops to Little Rock. Still further buoying blacks, the Supreme Court convened a special session in 1958 to deal with Little Rock and ruled that the threat of white violence could not justify a refusal to desegregate. “The constitutional rights of respondents,” the Court declared, “are not to be sacrificed or yielded to violence and disorder…. Law and order are not here to be preserved by depriving the Negro children of their constitutional rights.” But the Supreme Court could not transform its lofty aims into reality; most Northern whites lost interest after the crisis subsided; and President Eisenhower refused ever again to enforce the school-desegregation decision. In addition, the whites of Little Rock replaced moderate Congressman Brooks Hays with a militant segregationist and opted to close down all the public high schools rather than accept token integration. It would take two years and another federal-court edict to reopen them, and by 1964 still only 123 black children out of a total African-American registration of nearly seven thousand students would be attending desegregated schools in Little Rock. Arkansas whites, meanwhile, swept Faubus back into the statehouse by a landslide and kept reelecting him until he retired in 1967. The use of federal forces had made him a folk hero to segregationists. Stung by the resurrection of the Lost Cause, the leader of the desegregation struggle in Little Rock expressed the mood of determination seeping throughout black America: “We’ve got to decide whether it’s going to be this generation or never.”
More than anything else, Brown v. Board of Education and its aftermath stimulated black hope and anguish. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, blacks had accepted the leadership of the NAACP in their struggle for equality and had followed the association in relying upon litigation and legislative lobbying to eradicate racism. By 1954, many African-Americans believed that the overturning of Plessy in the school cases would rapidly undermine the whole Jim Crow system.
But it did not happen. “Colored” and “White” signs remained over drinking fountains and rest rooms from one end of the South to the other. Southern blacks could not sit down next to a white and be served a hamburger or a cup of coffee. Drivers continued to demand that blacks stay in the back of the bus. Worse, African-Americans still attended schools that were both squalid and segregated. In 1960, only one-sixth of one percent of the black students in the South went to a desegregated school. By 1964, just two percent of the black children in the South attended integrated schools, and none at all in the two Southern counties involved in the Brown decision.
Disenchantment thus tempered the euphoria with which blacks greeted the Supreme Court’s ruling on May 17, 1954. Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower’s employment of federal troops to curtail racist extremism, and the passage of two civil-rights bills undoubtedly prepared the way for a more massive and militant phase of the black struggle. They gave legitimacy to the quest for equality. Each raised the aspirations of blacks and inspired blacks to insist on the full rights of citizenship. The repeated heroism of the black men, women, and children engaged in the school-desegregation battle, moreover, broke the shackles from many chained black minds. Yet disenfranchisement and segregation remained the rule in the South. The White Citizens’ Councils continued to flourish and dominate state governments. In the North, suburbanization encouraged the growth of a racially segmented society. Automation and recessions would lead to a tripling of black unemployment in the 1950s. Summing up the halting progress of those years, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins observed: “President Eisenhower was a fine general and a good, decent man, but if he had fought World War II the way he fought for civil rights, we would all be speaking German today.” African-Americans could no longer expect automatic progress. Their reliance on legalism and on white politicians diminished. Anger and hope gave rise to a new sense of urgency. Bitterness mixed with confidence stimulated a yearning to widen the scope of the struggle. And an amalgam of impatience, indignation, and buoyancy readied the black struggle for new protest leaders and strategies.
THE STRUGGLE FOR BALCK EQUALITY Copyright © 1981, 1993, 2008 by Harvard Sitkoff