The Civil Rights Movement

What little had been accomplished during the Truman Administration with regard to civil rights was done by the president himself through executive orders that prohibited discrimination in the federal government and ended segregation in the armed services. During the Eisenhower administration, Supreme Court decisions and organized protests by African‐Americans themselves challenged Jim Crow laws. Eisenhower, although he had little faith in the power of the judiciary alone to end discrimination, assumed full responsibility for seeing that the rulings of federal courts were obeyed. Congress, on the other hand, moved slowly to enhance the legal status of blacks and other minorities.

Brown v. Board of Education. In 1950, the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund decided to challenge the legal heart of segregation — the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established the “separate but equal” doctrine. Several cases on public‐school segregation were making their way through the federal judiciary at this time, and the first to reach the Supreme Court was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the Court, under the new Eisenhower‐appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal and therefore were a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A former attorney general and governor of California, Warren recognized that the decision had to be unanimous if it was going to have a significant impact across the country, and he worked hard with the other justices to gain consensus. Although the Court did not provide a blueprint as to how the decision should be carried out, in 1955 it ordered the desegregation of the public schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Eisenhower ordered the immediate desegregation of schools in Washington, D.C., which were under federal jurisdiction, and the process went smoothly in some of the 21 states that had legally segregated school systems. In other states, however, opposition to desegregation was strong. The Brown decision led to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and to the creation of White Citizens Councils in the South to defend segregation. In March 1956, 100 southern senators and congressmen signed the Southern Manifesto, which accused the Court of abuse of judicial power and sought the restoration of “legal” segregation.

The most direct confrontation came at the beginning of the 1957 school year in Little Rock, Arkansas. In September, nine African‐American students were scheduled to enroll in the all‐white Central High School. Defying the federal order to integrate, Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine students from entering the school. Faubus withdrew the Guard in response to a court order, but when the teenagers tried to attend classes, an angry mob surrounded the school and the students were forced to leave. As a result, President Eisenhower sent in the Regular Army and federalized the National Guard to protect the students and to make sure they were allowed to go to school. The incident had important consequences. It marked the first time since Reconstruction that the federal government had taken concerted action to protect the rights of African‐Americans. Additionally, television extensively covered the events in Little Rock, and the virulent racism of white students and adults built support for the civil rights movement.

The Montgomery bus boycott. While riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, as the law required. She was arrested and fined. The African‐American community in Montgomery, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responded with a boycott of the city bus system. Because blacks made up the majority of riders, the action had a serious effect on transit revenues, but local leaders still refused to change the law. The boycott continued until November 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional. The events in Montgomery helped make King the recognized leader of the civil rights movement and gave credence to his nonviolent approach to racial justice. He became the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

Congress could not help but notice both the decisions of the Supreme Court and the growing activism of African‐Americans themselves. With the backing of Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate cases in which the right to vote was denied on the basis of race or where the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated. The law was strengthened somewhat through the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which gave federal judges the power to appoint arbitrators to ensure that blacks were allowed to register and vote.

Hispanics and Native Americans. The discrimination faced by other minorities in the United States did not attract the same public attention as the struggle of blacks and, in some instances, was more subtle. For instance, Mexican‐Americans might not be served in a restaurant in Texas, but no body of law existed (as in the case of African‐Americans) that regulated their interactions with whites. Official segregation of Mexican‐Americans in public education began to unravel in the late 1940s through action of the federal and local courts, and their integration was never as contentious an issue as it was with African‐Americans. Like blacks, Hispanics formed their own organizations to press for full equality. One such organization, the American GI Forum, was established when a Texas funeral home refused to bury a Mexican‐American veteran of World War II. The League of United Latin American Citizens, better known as LULAC, was another important voice for Hispanics in the 1950s.

The Eisenhower administration was intent on fully integrating Native Americans into the dominant culture. In 1953, the government instituted the so‐called termination policy, under which the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided fewer federal services to Native Americans, encouraged tribes to sell off their lands, and offered incentives to individuals and families to leave the reservations. At the heart of termination was not only the belief that the maintenance of the reservation system prevented full assimilation but also pressure from states and corporations that wanted to gain control of tribal lands containing valuable timber and mineral resources. Although the policy was phased out in the late 1950s, it did bring about a significant rise in the number of Native Americans living in cities. However, only 10 percent of those who left the reservations found jobs, and for many, urban life meant unemployment, poverty, and alcoholism.