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Segregation and Desegregation

Brown V. Board Of Education

The NAACP finally got its test case when Oliver Brown, of Topeka, Kansas, a welder for the railroad, decided to challenge segregation laws. Brown refused to send his daughter through the switchyard of a railway, to an all-African American school a mile away, when a school was located merely seven blocks from his home. That school, which happened to be all-white, denied Linda Brown admittance when Mr. Brown tried to enroll her. Brown persisted, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by Thurgood Marshall, stepped in to help with the defense. Marshall and the NAACP lawyers took the case to the Supreme Court, where the Court was forced to address the issue of segregation. In a landmark decision in 1954, the Court overturned the "separate but equal" provision of Plessy, and declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, the Court remanded all other such cases to district courts, with the direction to desegregate schools "with all deliberate speed."

Desegregation, however, was a painfully slow process, taking more than 20 years to institute. Initially, the South refused to comply with desegregation laws; it took legal action and federal troops and marshals to enforce the laws. In 1957 U.S. marshals were used to enforce desegregation laws in a highly publicized incident in Little Rock, Arkansas. Alabama governor George Wallace physically resisted the desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963. Federal troops were called upon to quell disorder at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith was admitted to the all-white college.

The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, however, went far beyond schools. In effect, the Court had implied that segregation was no longer legal in any domain: educational institutions, transportation facilities, public places, housing complexes, or the voting booth. In 1957, Congress passed its first Civil Rights Act in more than 80 years. Even the military had been desegregated by executive order in 1948, though discrimination persisted. African American organizations were quick to capitalize on the changing political and social climate. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, was highly influential in spreading its confrontational tactics to other groups. In the 1940s CORE employed direct, nonviolent action to end segregation. The organization used sit-ins and stand-ins in Chicago and organized the Freedom Ride in 1947, which tested freedom of transportation in the South in 1947. By 1960 the desegregation movement was taking on national proportions. Desegregation was no longer an issue for the "South," as African Americans continued to migrate to the North and West. New leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), applied the non-violent strategies espoused by CORE and Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance which forged a new resistance to racial intolerance. King helped stage a successful boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system in 1955. The boycott protested the arrest of Rosa Parks who refused to move to the African American section of a public bus. Thereafter boycotts and picketing spread to other southern cities as a new weapon in the arsenal against segregation. From 1955 to 1960, such tactics helped to integrate schools, transportation, and public places in the border states. However the Deep South stubbornly resisted the new laws.

The sit-in movement of the 1960s began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in an attempt to desegregate a public lunch counter. The movement spread across the South to restaurants, department stores, theaters, and libraries, as a nonviolent response to racial intolerance. In the summer of 1961 the Freedom Rides resumed. White and African American students from the North and South rode southern transportation units and tested hotels for compliance with desegregation laws. Roughly 70,000 students participated in the desegregation movement that summer, which resulted in 3,600 arrests. White supremacists in the South met these tactics with increased violence and, on one occasion shot down a Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers, in 1963. The Klan also killed four African American girls in a church bombing in Birmingham Alabama, and murder three volunteers of the Congress of Federated Organization who were teachingdAfrican Americans in rural Mississippi how to register to vote. The nation was stunned by news footage from Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 depicting the use of dogs and fire hoses to deter peaceful protesters. The civil rights movement reached its zenith with the 1963 march on Washington, in which 250,000 people participated.

The federal government responded with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most comprehensive legislation of its kind. This act prohibited segregation in all privately owned public facilities which were subject in any way to interstate commerce provisions. The Civil Rights Act prohibited discriminatory practices for public accommodations, facilities, education, and federally assisted programs and employment. The constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was challenged in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964). The Court held that the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was constitutional. Title VII of the 1964 act prohibits discrimination based on an employee's race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Further congressional laws and executive orders were put in place to guarantee voting rights and equal housing. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was aimed primarily at guaranteeing African American suffrage, while the Civil Rights Act of 1968 focused on discriminatory policies in housing. Such unfair practices as zoning to achieve racial segregation and redlining--in which lending institutions discriminated against minorities--were declared illegal. In Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), the Supreme Court found it illegal to refuse to rent or sell to a person on the basis of race.

These gains were met by fierce resistance from those intent on preserving segregation. Despite legal guarantees, whites still found ways to discriminate against African Americans. Rioting broke out in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in 1965, a result of frustration and poverty. In the summer of 1967 more riots broke out in 30 different cities, leaving 100 dead, 2,000 injured, and causing millions of dollars in property damage. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 set the desegregation movement back decades. The movement divided into conservative and radical organizations. Newer groups such as the Black Muslims and Black Panthers elected leaders such as H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton who advocated Black Nationalism and revolution.

Meanwhile, school desegregation was encouraged by the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which held busing in the service of integrating schools constitutional. Busing has continued to be a hotly contested issue by both African Americans and whites. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s further gains were made with the institution of affirmative action programs designed to promote social and economic justice. However, the constitutionality of such programs has been called into question through such cases as University of California v. Bakke (1978) and United Steel Workers of America v. Weber (1979). Affirmative action, which has been described as reverse discrimination, was outlawed by California voters in 1996 with the adoption of proposition 209. While the legal foundations of segregation have been dismantled, de facto segregation is still practiced. Significant gains have been made in areas such as education, transportation, access to public accommodation, and representation. The Congressional Black Caucus, which began with only six members in 1969, has become a formidable political force over the years. Many African Americans have been elected to public office and appointed to federal courts which is indicative of progress made. However, political, social, and economic disparities between African Americans and whites seem to suggest that racial equality is still a distant ideal.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesSegregation and Desegregation - Separate But Equal, The Face Of Segregation, Brown V. Board Of Education, Further Readings