[NOTE: One of the most significant developments in American history since the end of World War II has been the modern civil rights movement, which noted historian C. Vann Woodward termed “the Second Reconstruction.” Between the 1940s and 1968, the movement went through several distinct, if overlapping, phases.]
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The first phase of the modern civil rights movement lasted from World War II through the mid-1950s and was characterized by action on the part of the executive and judicial branches of the government, while Congress and public opinion remained unresponsive. At the time, African Americans were imprisoned in a rigid caste system, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) and Congress’s failure to enact any civil rights legislation, despite blatant denials of African American rights, especially in the South.
In downtown Washington, D.C., for example, Blacks could not register at a hotel, see a movie, order a meal at a restaurant or at a drugstore lunch counter. When traveling south of the Nation’s Capital, African Americans had to move to the back of the bus or change to a segregated railroad car. In the Deep South, very few Blacks could vote. In seventeen states in the south and the border regions, Washington, D.C., and in some sections of Kansas, Arizona, and New Mexico, Black students were required by law to attend segregated schools. Few African American high school graduates had the opportunity to go to college, and Black families constituted a disproportionately high percentage of Americans living in poverty.
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Things began to change, slowly at first, a bit faster once the U.S. entered World War II. In Lane v. Wilson (1939), the Supreme Court delivered the deathblow to the so-called “grandfather clause” as a means of limiting the number of African Americans who could vote.
Two years later, in 1941, in response to A. Philip Randolph’s threat to “march on Washington” to protest racial discrimination in hiring for the defense industry and in the armed forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which involved the national government for the first time since Reconstruction on the side of racial equality. In 1944, in Smith v. Allwright, a case argued by lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Supreme Court struck down another southern tool for limiting the Black vote, the “white primary.” A series of Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1954 put an end to racial discrimination in higher education.
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World War II and the Cold War that followed combined to make civil rights a national issue again. During the war, the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest, which had begun during World War I, continued. The Nazi doctrine of the “Master Race” seemed to many Americans to resemble the view of Black people held by Southern whites. The post-World War II breakup of former European empires launched the U.S. and the USSR into a competition for adherents among the “colored races” of Africa and Asia—because of this, American racial policies became grist for Communist propaganda mills.
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The loyalty of African Americans to the Democratic Party since the New Deal began to pay dividends in 1947, when President Truman established a committee on civil rights. The committee’s report led to the re-emergence of civil rights as a national political issue for the first time in the twentieth century. In February 1948, Truman asked for enactment of a new Fair Employment Practices enforcement law and the establishment of a permanent civil rights committee. In July 1948, the President issued an executive order abolishing segregation in the nation’s armed forces.
President Truman’s stand on civil rights split southern Democrats from the national party in the 1948 presidential election. Truman emerged victorious in November, in one of the great upsets in American political history, but the southern Democratic bloc in Congress nevertheless torpedoed the President’s various civil rights proposals.
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A key Supreme Court decision came in May 1954, when, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court outlawed segregation in public schools, thereby reversing the doctrine of “separate but equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in another triumph for the NAACP and its staff of dedicated civil rights attorneys. In 1955, in a ruling implementing the principles set forth in Brown, the Court ordered lower courts to see to it that desegregation of the nation’s public schools proceed “with all deliberate speed.”
Southern segregationists interpreted the 1955 Brown implementation order as a signal that they could delay integration with impunity—for what exactly did “with all deliberate speed” really mean? Virginia took the lead in the new southern policy of “massive resistance,” an assertion of state rights to block integration of public schools. Other states joined in passing laws authorizing the closing of public schools by state and local action rather than integrate.
As the Ku Klux Klan revived in the South, and as the purportedly “better sort” of white southerners formed the White Citizens Council to oppose integration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to reduce the federal government’s role in American society, refused to take the lead in pushing integration of public schools. Violence greeted desegregation efforts in Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, and, most notoriously, in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, when Governor Orville Faubus called out the state’s National Guard to block admission of seven African American students to Central High School in the capital. Faubus’s action forced President Eisenhower’s hand. He federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered it to disperse white mobs and protect Black students.
School integration dragged on slowly during the Eisenhower years, the battle being fought in the courts, school district by school district. By 1960, four southern states still maintained wholly segregated school systems. In six other states, less than 1% of Black students attended integrated schools. In seventeen previously segregated state school systems, only an estimated 6.3% of Black pupils attended classes with whites, and most of those were in border states with relatively low African American populations.
An important point to remember is that scenes of southern white resistance to school integration were telecast nationwide on the evening news during these years. This brought a significant shift in white recognition of injustice. As one observer wrote: “Here were grown men and women furiously confronting their enemy: two, three, a half-dozen scrubbed, starched, scared, and incredibly brave colored children. The moral bankruptcy, the shame of the thing, was evident.”
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The possibility of massive, nonviolent demonstrations against segregation had arisen as early as 1941, when A. Philip Randolph had threatened to lead a march on Washington. The following year, a sit-in in Chicago was staged by a group of Blacks and whites who, under the leadership of James Farmer, formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The first post-World War II scene in the drama of nonviolent protest was the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which began on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress and local NAACP official, refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man. Parks was arrested for violating a Jim Crow-era law that permitted Blacks to sit in public vehicles only after all whites had been seated. Inspired by Rosa Parks’ action and led by a young minister, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery’s black residents refused to ride city buses for over a year. Finally, the city ended discrimination on buses, with a nudge from a federal court injunction.
Dr. King went on to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to make a coordinated, but nonviolent, assault on racial injustice. On February 1, 1960, four freshmen from a local black college, North Carolina A&T, organized a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter at a Greensboro Woolworth’s store. King called a meeting that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. SNCC led 70,000 Black and white demonstrators in “sit-ins,” “wade-ins,” and “kneel-ins” to protest segregation in public facilities, beaches, and churches.
These actions, many of which were televised, kept civil rights before the nation and eventually brought action from Congress and the President, but at a heavy price. Demonstrations met resistance from governors, members of congress, state legislatures, sheriffs, state troopers, vigilantes, and racist high school and college students, as well as inertia among community, state, and national leaders.
Southern intransigence became so blatant that even the conservative Eisenhower administration eventually was moved to sponsor civil rights legislation, steered through Congress by the Senate’s Democratic Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. These early bills were largely concerned with voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created a Civil Rights Commission to provide some federal protection for African Americans who wished to register to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 tried to safeguard voting rights and stipulated that threatening to obstruct federal court orders was a violation of civil rights.
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John F. Kennedy, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, was elected President in 1960 at least partly on an explicit civil rights pledge, but, once in office, he and his brother, Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, appeared to be more interested in voting rights for African Americans than in the integration of the nation’s public facilities. They believed that the ballot would bring Black Americans more rights and opportunities than any court or executive action. Only intense pressure from continuing demonstrations or other dramatic incidents seemed capable of drawing White House support for integration.
For example, in 1961, James Farmer and CORE organized “freedom rides” on interstate buses to attack segregation and discrimination in southern bus terminals. An Alabama mob burned one bus and beat up its passengers near Anniston. The Kennedy Administration sent federal marshals to maintain order after local authorities proved unwilling to protect demonstrators. In 1962, federal troops were sent to fight off a white mob and protect James Meredith, the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi. In Birmingham, Alabama, police used police and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators. In June 1963, a sniper lying in ambush shot and killed Mississippi NAACP official Medgar Evers.
Finally, in June 1963, President Kennedy moved to substitute a stronger civil rights bill for the more moderate one then before Congress. He asked that the Justice Department be authorized to sue segregated school districts; that he be empowered to withdraw federal funds from segregated projects; and that African Americans be ensured equal access to places of public accommodation.
At this point, rather than wait for Congress to act, Dr. Martin Luther King and other Black leaders revived A. Philip Randolph’s “march on Washington” idea to demand passage of forceful civil rights legislation. In August 1963, an estimated quarter of a million demonstrators (Blacks and whites) traveled to the Nation’s Capital. The nationally-broadcast highlight of this march was Dr. King’s moving “I Have a Dream” address.
President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Texan Lyndon Johnson, who had been instrumental in securing passage of civil rights laws for President Eisenhower in 1957 and 1960.
END OF PART I
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: