The African American Civil Rights Movement As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom

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2.5 Prelude to the Movement

2.5.1 The Main Focus of Attention at Mid-century

As the middle of the century approached, the efforts of African Americans in the northern states turned to the desegregation of education, housing and employment where separate but unequal prevailed. The blacks in the South supported them with demands for equal segregation as well. It was widely believed that if the doctrine of separate but equal was fulfilled, it would lead to the dismantling of Jim Crow. This opinion stemmed from the fact that it would be too expensive to maintain segregation rather than provide equal conditions.

They triumphed in 1950 when the Supreme Court decided that the segregation of blacks in dining cars on interstate transportation would result in extra expenses for interstate commerce and therefore nullified it. The second verdict of that year stated that if a state chose not to fund schools for blacks, then it would not be permitted to segregate blacks from whites in a joint school (Sitkoff 1993: 17-18).

The desegregation of public housing was the next sphere where African Americans applied their pressure. In 1950, for instance, “there were 177 local housing projects open to families of all races and creeds” (Franklin and Moss 1994: 463). Nine states and eight cities went even further by requiring desegregation in all public housing. Fair employment policies backed by the President opened new opportunities in fields previously closed to blacks, including the aircraft, electronics, automotive, and chemical industries. When A. Philip Randolph and William Townsend, both African Americans, became vice presidents of merged unions, it promised an increase in equal employment opportunities as well. By 1956, sixteen states and thirty-six cities established committees that would inspect companies awarded government contracts to ensure that discrimination and segregation practices were not occurring (ibid.: 463, 472).

During this period, Washington, D.C. played a pivotal role in desegregation. Hotels began to accept blacks, followed by theatres and cinemas. Access to all public parks, playgrounds and swimming pools was opened to all city residents. The year 1953 saw the desegregation of restaurants. Finally, after the Supreme Court decision concerning the desegregation of the educational system, President Eisenhower recommended these changes as a model for the rest of the United States (ibid.: 464-465).

On the other hand, African Americans did not obtain these victories easily. In Washington, D.C., for instance, whites slowed the integration of fire departments. Some whites threatened to quit work if blacks were employed. Other groups of segregationists threatened blacks with physical violence and some registrars continued to exclude blacks from voting. Their reasoning being that the Constitution was insufficiently understood by African Americans (ibid.: 467). Other groups countered the rising number of blacks in cities by leaving, thus reducing the number of jobs available. Franklin and Moss state that “of the fifteen million blacks in the United States in 1950 about fifty-two percent were living in metropolitan areas” (ibid.: 470).

2.5.2 Brown v. Board of education

As already stated, desegregation of the educational system seemed to African Americans a likely starting point for ending Jim Crow tactics. In 1953, the White House welcomed Dwight D. Eisenhower as the new President. His intent was to support the civil rights movement and approve civil rights legislation proposed by President Truman, but his pace was a bit slow. He considered southern politicians reasonable enough to be aware of the necessity of obeying federal laws. On the other hand, he remained willing to provide them with time to reconcile themselves to the fact of gradual African American liberation and to relinquish humiliating racial practices. Steven expressed it in one masterful sentence: “Gradualism rather than speed characterized his approach” (1991: 41).

Since 1951, many local branches of the NAACP devoted their energies to eliminating unequal conditions at segregated schools. In 1952, five such cases were heard by the Supreme Court and named after the first case – Brown v. Topeka. Nearly a year and a half passed before the Supreme Court reached the decision whether or not to overrule Plessy v. Fergusson, dating 1896. The decision concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (qtd. in Sitkoff 1993: 22). Segregation was declared unconstitutional, and African Americans looked forward to dismantling Jim Crow in all facets of their lives.

Very soon blacks had to awake from their euphoria and accept the fact that to put the law into effect meant changing the hearts and minds of thousands of whites, especially in the South where there was little support for the decision.

Only some fifty-four weeks later, African Americans observed several hundred schools in the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, and West Virginia integrated their classrooms. In the District of Columbia, desegregation of schools was directed by the President and states such as Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming who could exercise options on segregation chose to integrate their schools. More than eighty percent of Southerners refused to accept the decision. Noncompliance by the Southern states caused the Supreme Court did not set a deadline for desegregation which slowed desegregation efforts. In addition, 101 Southern Democratic Congressmen in 1956 signed a Declaration of Constitutional Principles where they agreed to defy desegregation orders, reasoning that the matter was in the hands of individual states and not that of the Supreme Court. The Declaration gained the support of eleven southern states (ibid.: 25-26).

Meanwhile, thousands of black parents along with NAACP attorneys filed suits against some two thousand Southern school districts. White juries and officials intentionally prolonged legal proceedings and physically threatened blacks to withdraw their lawsuits. Black children were ignored by white teachers at schools, and their classmates humiliated or attack them. Support for segregationists included pupil placement laws enacted by state legislatures. The laws allowed for segregation not on the basis of race, but for various psychological, moral or health reasons (ibid.: 26-27).

In addition, the Ku Klux Klan became involved and gave support to the newly formed White Citizens Councils whose members openly rejected desegregation, using economic reprisals against opponents, and punished teachers who taught mixed classes as well as those who attended them. They also supported the transformation of public schools into private ones (Franklin and Moss 1994: 467). Riots and violent demonstrations broke out across the South each September. The NAACP, in its effort to better the situation of blacks in the South was severely limited in its work by state legislature laws directed at them. The states of Virginia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida struck back at the NAACP for their success in Brown v. Board of Education (Steven 1991: 48-49). The efforts of these states led to the closure of 246 NAACP branches in the South by 1958 (Sitkoff 1993: 27).

2.5.3 Summary

The beginning of the 1950s showed African Americans’ resolution to improve their situation. By this time, they fully comprehended that suffrage was the power for changing their lives as far as job opportunities, housing, education and economic conditions were concerned. In the postwar years, CORE registration drives helped to attract the interest of the black masses in policy, whereas the work of the NAACP achieved victories in the courts.

The biggest discrepancy persisted in the educational system. Northern blacks were convinced that if the Supreme Court decided in their favor, it would provide them with an avenue for banishing Jim Crow once and for all. Having such a decision would mean obtaining a judicial precedent, which happened.

Nevertheless, the achievement of the above mentioned victories had been hard won. Without them, there would not have been any civil rights movement. Resistance from whites stemmed from the entrenched customs and traditions of a racially segregated society. The defiant attitudes of whites against decisions made by state governments as well as the Supreme Court contributed to the conviction of African Americans that change was necessary at the federal level. African Americans experienced a deep disappointment when they understood that without executive power that would be in compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court, their chance to gain equal integrated education remained poor, especially in the South.

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