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An Outline of American History
Desegregation
by U.S. Department of State


Blacks took matters into their own hands. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was determined to overturn the judicial doctrine, established in the court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, that segregation of black and white students in schools was constitutional if facilities were "separate but equal." That decree had been used for decades to sanction rigid segregation in the South, where facilities were seldom, if ever, equal.

Blacks achieved their goal of overturning Plessy in 1954 when the Supreme Court -- presided over by an Eisenhower appointee, Chief Justice Earl Warren -- handed down its Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The Court declared unanimously that "separate facilities are inherently unequal," and decreed that the "separate but equal" doctrine could no longer be used in public schools. A year later, the Supreme Court demanded that local school boards move "with all deliberate speed" to implement the decision.

Eisenhower, although sympathetic to the needs of the South as it faced a major transition, nonetheless acted quickly to see that the law was upheld. He ordered the desegregation of Washington, D.C., schools to serve as a model for the rest of the country, and sought to end discrimination in other areas as well.

He faced a major crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Just before implementation of a desegregation plan calling for the admission of nine black students to a previously all-white high school, the governor declared that violence threatened, and posted Arkansas National Guardsmen to keep peace by turning the black students away. When a federal court ordered the troops to leave, the students came to school, only to encounter belligerent taunts. As mobs became hostile, the black students left.

Eisenhower responded by placing the National Guardsmen under federal command and calling them back to Little Rock. He was reluctant to do so because federal troops had not been used to protect black rights since the end of Reconstruction, but he knew he had no choice. And so desegregation began with soldiers standing in classrooms to ensure the rule of law.

Another milestone in the civil rights movement occurred in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black seamstress who was also secretary of the state chapter of the NAACP, sat down in the front of a bus in a section reserved by law and custom for whites. Ordered to move to the back, she refused. Police came and arrested her for violating the segregation statutes. Black leaders, who had been waiting for just such a case, organized a boycott of the bus system. Martin Luther King Jr., a young minister of the Baptist church where the blacks met, became a spokesman for the protest. "There comes a time," he said, "when people get tired...of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression." King was arrested, as he would be again and again, but blacks in Montgomery sustained the boycott and cut gross bus revenue by 65 percent. About a year later, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation, like school segregation, was unconstitutional. The boycott ended. The civil rights movement had won an important victory -- and discovered its most powerful, thoughtful and eloquent leader in Martin Luther King Jr.

African Americans also sought to secure their voting rights. Although the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right to vote, many states had found ways -- whether by a poll ("head") tax or a literacy test -- to circumvent the law. Eisenhower, working with Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, lent his support to a congressional effort to guarantee the vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such measure in 82 years, marked a step forward, as it authorized federal intervention in cases where blacks were denied the chance to vote. Yet loopholes remained, and so activists pushed successfully for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which provided stiffer penalties for interfering with voting, but still stopped short of authorizing federal officials to register blacks.

Relying on the efforts of black Americans themselves, the civil rights movement gained momentum in the postwar years. Working through the Supreme Court and through Congress, civil rights supporters created the groundwork for an even more extensive movement in the 1960s.

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