|Chapter 44 Section 3
The Granger Collection, New York
When Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, he became the first African American to cross the color line in professional baseball. He credited his black fans with helping him get through his first difficult years in the major leagues. This baseball card shows Robinson in 1955. Jackie Robinson would become one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game. In 1944, however, he was a lieutenant in the army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Leaving the base one day, he got on a military bus and took a seat up front. The driver ordered him to move to the back, but Robinson refused. When he got off at his stop, he was arrested. Robinson was nearly court-martialed for his actions that day. Later, he would achieve fame on the baseball diamond and become a role model for millions of Americans. Over the course of his life, Robinson came to represent both the struggles of African Americans and their gradual advances in white-dominated society.
Breaking the Color Line in Sports
Jackie Robinson began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues after World War II. At the time, baseball was divided by the color line [color line: a barrier—created by custom, law, and economic differences—that separated whites from nonwhites] , a barrier created by custom, law, and economic differences that separated whites from nonwhites. In 1945, Robinson crossed the color line when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey hired him. After briefly playing for a minor league team, Robinson took the field in a Dodgers uniform in 1947. Being the first black major league baseball player was not easy. Fans taunted him, and some of his own teammates resented playing with a black man. Players on opposing teams sometimes tried to “bean” him with the ball or spike him with their cleats. As he later recalled, “Plenty of times I wanted to haul off [and fight] when someone insulted me for the color of my skin, but I had to hold to myself. I knew I was kind of an experiment. The whole thing was bigger than me.” Robinson overcame these challenges and eventually led his team to six league championships and one World Series victory.
Around the same time, other professional sports began to open up to black athletes. Football became integrated in 1946, when four black players joined the professional leagues. Four years later, the National Basketball Association accepted its first African American players. By the 1950s, the color line in professional sports was gradually disappearing.
Desegregation of the Armed Forces
Another area of American life in which the color line would soon fall was the armed forces. But again, change did not come easily. Despite the valuable contributions of African American soldiers during World War II, the military remained segregated after the war.
Many GIs returning from combat continued to face segregation at home, especially in the Jim Crow South. In 1946, army veteran Isaac Woodard was traveling by bus from North Carolina to Georgia. At one stop, the driver threatened Woodard for taking too much time in the “colored” bathroom. The two men argued, and Woodard was arrested. Police officers then beat him so badly that he was permanently blinded. When President Truman learned of the incident, he was appalled and vowed to do something about segregation in the military. “I shall never approve of it,” he wrote. “I am going to try to remedy it.”
Truman knew that desegregation in the armed forces was necessary, not only on moral grounds but also for political reasons. Like many Americans, he recognized that it was hypocritical to fight Nazism and anti-Semitism abroad while maintaining a color line at home. Likewise, he saw that continued segregation in the United States could undermine efforts to promote freedom and democracy overseas as part of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. As the Cold War intensified in the late 1940s, political leaders began to discuss the need to rebuild the armed forces. Many African Americans said they would refuse to fight in a segregated army. Although many leaders in the armed forces opposed desegregation, Truman believed that discrimination in the military must end.
On July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981 [Executive Order 9981: an executive order issued by President Harry S. Truman in 1948 ending segregation in the military] , which stated, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” With this order, desegregation became official policy in the armed forces.
Cornell Capa-Time LIfe Pictures/Getty Images
Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP’s legal defense branch, was denied admission to the University of Maryland because he was not white. He went on to earn a law degree from Howard University. In one of Marshall’s first legal victories, he sued the University of Maryland for its race-based policy. Marshall later served on the Supreme Court.
Civil Rights Organizations Challenge Discrimination
The fight to end segregation would never have succeeded without the determined efforts of civil rights activists. Many Americans worked tirelessly for various organizations dedicated to achieving equal rights.
One of these organizations was the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Founded in Chicago in 1942 by a group of students, CORE was committed to nonviolent direct action as a means of change. Its first action—a peaceful protest at a segregated coffee shop in Chicago in 1943—gained national attention and helped CORE spread to other northern cities. It went on to assist in the desegregation of many public facilities in the North and then turned its attention to the South in the late 1950s.
Another key group, the National Urban League, formed in response to the Great Migration of blacks to northern cities in the early 1900s. The Urban League focused on helping African Americans achieve success in the North. It counseled newly arrived migrants and trained black social workers. It also promoted educational and employment opportunities for African Americans. During World War II, the Urban League helped integrate defense plants.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest major civil rights organization, also remained active in the struggle for equal rights. Founded in 1909, the NAACP continued its efforts to promote civil rights legislation. In 1939, the group established a legal arm for civil rights actions, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The following year, Thurgood Marshall became the head of this group. The Legal Defense and Educational Fund focused on defeating segregation through the court system. Its main weapon was the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This clause prohibits states from denying any person equal protection of the laws. Since the clause does not allow states to discriminate, it is crucial to the protection of civil rights.
In 1951, getting to school every day was hard for Linda Brown, a seven-year-old in Topeka, Kansas. First she had to walk a mile, passing through a railroad yard on her way to the bus stop. Then she had to take a long bus ride to school. All of this made no sense to Linda because there was a good school only seven blocks from her house. But the schools in Topeka were segregated. The school near Linda was for whites only, and Linda was black. Her father, Oliver Brown, decided to do something about that. With the help of the court system, Brown and other civil rights activists began to dismantle segregation.
Early Court Decisions Make Big Strides
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Supreme Court began to strike down Jim Crow laws. In 1935, the Court ordered the University of Maryland to admit a black student. Later it declared white primaries unconstitutional and barred segregation on interstate transport. These were important steps in breaking down segregation. In 1948, the Supreme Court tackled the issue of segregated housing. In Shelley v. Kraemer, the Court ruled that states could not enforce restrictive covenants. As a result, many city neighborhoods became desegregated. Over the next few years, for example, thousands of black families in Chicago moved into areas that had previously been restricted to whites. In 1950, the Court handed down strong rulings against discrimination in education. In two cases, the Court declared that segregation in graduate schools and law schools was unconstitutional. It began to look as if all “separate but equal” education was on the way out. The Granger Collection, New York
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was big news across the nation. The headline on this issue of the New York Times was typical of news coverage around the country.
A Landmark Ruling: Brown v. Board of Education
Meanwhile in Topeka, Oliver Brown, Linda’s father, had contacted the NAACP, which in turn gathered 12 other parents to join in efforts to desegregate the city’s schools. First the parents tried to enroll their children in white schools, but all were denied admission. So in 1951 the NAACP sued the Topeka school district in court. A local court found “no willful discrimination.” The NAACP appealed the case, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education: the 1954 Supreme Court ruling declaring that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional] was actually a set of cases from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., that had moved up through the court system at the same time. The Court decided to combine the cases because the plaintiffs were all looking for the same legal remedy. The Brown case was a class-action lawsuit [class-action lawsuit: a lawsuit filed by people on behalf of themselves and a larger group who might benefit] , a lawsuit filed by people on behalf of themselves and a larger group who might benefit.
The NAACP’s lead attorney, Thurgood Marshall, argued the case. He supplied evidence showing how segregation harms African American children. The most famous piece of evidence was the “doll test.” In the test, 16 black children had been shown a white doll and a brown doll. Ten of the children chose the white doll as the “nice” doll. The children were also asked to identify the doll that looked “bad.” Eleven children selected the black doll. According to the psychologist who conducted the test, “the Negro child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group.” The Brown case stayed in the Supreme Court for a year and a half. During this time, a new chief justice, Earl Warren, was appointed to the Court. Warren was a firm opponent of segregation. Believing that a unanimous decision in the Brown case would carry more weight than a divided one, he worked hard to convince all the judges to rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Finally, in May 1954, he succeeded. On May 17, he announced the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education:
In the first 10 years after the Brown ruling, slow progress was made in school desegregation. After 1964, however, the pace of desegregation quickened.
We come then to the question presented: 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? We believe that it does . . . 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.
—Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
James Burke-Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Some southern states had begun to integrate their schools by the mid-1950s. This photograph of an integrated classroom in Louisville, Kentucky, was taken in 1956.
The Brown decision dismantled the legal basis for segregation in schools and other public places. It was one of the most important judicial decisions in the nation’s history. It was also one of many key rulings on civil rights made by the Court under Earl Warren, who served as chief justice from 1953 to 1969. In fact, the Warren Court [Warren Court: the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren from 1953 to 1969, known for its activism on civil rights and free speech] became known for its activism on civil rights and free speech.
All Deliberate Speed? Much of the South Resists Change
A year after the Brown decision, the Supreme Court issued a second ruling, known as Brown II. This ruling instructed the states to begin desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” The phrase was chosen carefully. The justices wanted desegregation to go forward as quickly as possible, but they also recognized that many obstacles stood in the way. They wanted to allow states some flexibility in desegregating their schools in accordance with Brown.
In some border states, desegregation took place without incident. But in parts of the South, there was greater resistance. For example, in 1955 a white citizens’ council in Mississippi published a handbook called Black Monday, referring to the day the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision. The handbook called for an end to the NAACP and public schools. It also advocated a separate state for African Americans.
Despite such opposition, the Brown decision inspired hopes that African Americans could achieve equal rights in American society. It served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a time when many individuals and groups dedicated themselves to promoting equality, opportunity, and rights.