Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
U.S. History

28.5 The African American Struggle for Civil Rights

U.S. History28.5 The African American Struggle for Civil Rights
  1. Preface
  2. 1 The Americas, Europe, and Africa Before 1492
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Americas
    3. 1.2 Europe on the Brink of Change
    4. 1.3 West Africa and the Role of Slavery
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. 2 Early Globalization: The Atlantic World, 1492–1650
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Portuguese Exploration and Spanish Conquest
    3. 2.2 Religious Upheavals in the Developing Atlantic World
    4. 2.3 Challenges to Spain’s Supremacy
    5. 2.4 New Worlds in the Americas: Labor, Commerce, and the Columbian Exchange
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. 3 Creating New Social Orders: Colonial Societies, 1500–1700
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 Spanish Exploration and Colonial Society
    3. 3.2 Colonial Rivalries: Dutch and French Colonial Ambitions
    4. 3.3 English Settlements in America
    5. 3.4 The Impact of Colonization
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. 4 Rule Britannia! The English Empire, 1660–1763
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 Charles II and the Restoration Colonies
    3. 4.2 The Glorious Revolution and the English Empire
    4. 4.3 An Empire of Slavery and the Consumer Revolution
    5. 4.4 Great Awakening and Enlightenment
    6. 4.5 Wars for Empire
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. 5 Imperial Reforms and Colonial Protests, 1763-1774
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Confronting the National Debt: The Aftermath of the French and Indian War
    3. 5.2 The Stamp Act and the Sons and Daughters of Liberty
    4. 5.3 The Townshend Acts and Colonial Protest
    5. 5.4 The Destruction of the Tea and the Coercive Acts
    6. 5.5 Disaffection: The First Continental Congress and American Identity
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. 6 America's War for Independence, 1775-1783
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 Britain’s Law-and-Order Strategy and Its Consequences
    3. 6.2 The Early Years of the Revolution
    4. 6.3 War in the South
    5. 6.4 Identity during the American Revolution
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. 7 Creating Republican Governments, 1776–1790
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Common Sense: From Monarchy to an American Republic
    3. 7.2 How Much Revolutionary Change?
    4. 7.3 Debating Democracy
    5. 7.4 The Constitutional Convention and Federal Constitution
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. 8 Growing Pains: The New Republic, 1790–1820
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Competing Visions: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans
    3. 8.2 The New American Republic
    4. 8.3 Partisan Politics
    5. 8.4 The United States Goes Back to War
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  10. 9 Industrial Transformation in the North, 1800–1850
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Early Industrialization in the Northeast
    3. 9.2 A Vibrant Capitalist Republic
    4. 9.3 On the Move: The Transportation Revolution
    5. 9.4 A New Social Order: Class Divisions
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  11. 10 Jacksonian Democracy, 1820–1840
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 A New Political Style: From John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson
    3. 10.2 The Rise of American Democracy
    4. 10.3 The Nullification Crisis and the Bank War
    5. 10.4 Indian Removal
    6. 10.5 The Tyranny and Triumph of the Majority
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  12. 11 A Nation on the Move: Westward Expansion, 1800–1860
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 Lewis and Clark
    3. 11.2 The Missouri Crisis
    4. 11.3 Independence for Texas
    5. 11.4 The Mexican-American War, 1846–1848
    6. 11.5 Free Soil or Slave? The Dilemma of the West
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  13. 12 Cotton is King: The Antebellum South, 1800–1860
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 The Economics of Cotton
    3. 12.2 African Americans in the Antebellum United States
    4. 12.3 Wealth and Culture in the South
    5. 12.4 The Filibuster and the Quest for New Slave States
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  14. 13 Antebellum Idealism and Reform Impulses, 1820–1860
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 An Awakening of Religion and Individualism
    3. 13.2 Antebellum Communal Experiments
    4. 13.3 Reforms to Human Health
    5. 13.4 Addressing Slavery
    6. 13.5 Women’s Rights
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  15. 14 Troubled Times: the Tumultuous 1850s
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 The Compromise of 1850
    3. 14.2 The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Republican Party
    4. 14.3 The Dred Scott Decision and Sectional Strife
    5. 14.4 John Brown and the Election of 1860
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  16. 15 The Civil War, 1860–1865
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 The Origins and Outbreak of the Civil War
    3. 15.2 Early Mobilization and War
    4. 15.3 1863: The Changing Nature of the War
    5. 15.4 The Union Triumphant
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  17. 16 The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Restoring the Union
    3. 16.2 Congress and the Remaking of the South, 1865–1866
    4. 16.3 Radical Reconstruction, 1867–1872
    5. 16.4 The Collapse of Reconstruction
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  18. 17 Go West Young Man! Westward Expansion, 1840-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 The Westward Spirit
    3. 17.2 Homesteading: Dreams and Realities
    4. 17.3 Making a Living in Gold and Cattle
    5. 17.4 The Loss of American Indian Life and Culture
    6. 17.5 The Impact of Expansion on Chinese Immigrants and Hispanic Citizens
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  19. 18 Industrialization and the Rise of Big Business, 1870-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Inventors of the Age
    3. 18.2 From Invention to Industrial Growth
    4. 18.3 Building Industrial America on the Backs of Labor
    5. 18.4 A New American Consumer Culture
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  20. 19 The Growing Pains of Urbanization, 1870-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Urbanization and Its Challenges
    3. 19.2 The African American “Great Migration” and New European Immigration
    4. 19.3 Relief from the Chaos of Urban Life
    5. 19.4 Change Reflected in Thought and Writing
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  21. 20 Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Political Corruption in Postbellum America
    3. 20.2 The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold
    4. 20.3 Farmers Revolt in the Populist Era
    5. 20.4 Social and Labor Unrest in the 1890s
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  22. 21 Leading the Way: The Progressive Movement, 1890-1920
    1. Introduction
    2. 21.1 The Origins of the Progressive Spirit in America
    3. 21.2 Progressivism at the Grassroots Level
    4. 21.3 New Voices for Women and African Americans
    5. 21.4 Progressivism in the White House
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  23. 22 Age of Empire: American Foreign Policy, 1890-1914
    1. Introduction
    2. 22.1 Turner, Mahan, and the Roots of Empire
    3. 22.2 The Spanish-American War and Overseas Empire
    4. 22.3 Economic Imperialism in East Asia
    5. 22.4 Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” Foreign Policy
    6. 22.5 Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy”
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  24. 23 Americans and the Great War, 1914-1919
    1. Introduction
    2. 23.1 American Isolationism and the European Origins of War
    3. 23.2 The United States Prepares for War
    4. 23.3 A New Home Front
    5. 23.4 From War to Peace
    6. 23.5 Demobilization and Its Difficult Aftermath
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  25. 24 The Jazz Age: Redefining the Nation, 1919-1929
    1. Introduction
    2. 24.1 Prosperity and the Production of Popular Entertainment
    3. 24.2 Transformation and Backlash
    4. 24.3 A New Generation
    5. 24.4 Republican Ascendancy: Politics in the 1920s
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  26. 25 Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929-1932
    1. Introduction
    2. 25.1 The Stock Market Crash of 1929
    3. 25.2 President Hoover’s Response
    4. 25.3 The Depths of the Great Depression
    5. 25.4 Assessing the Hoover Years on the Eve of the New Deal
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  27. 26 Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1941
    1. Introduction
    2. 26.1 The Rise of Franklin Roosevelt
    3. 26.2 The First New Deal
    4. 26.3 The Second New Deal
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
  28. 27 Fighting the Good Fight in World War II, 1941-1945
    1. Introduction
    2. 27.1 The Origins of War: Europe, Asia, and the United States
    3. 27.2 The Home Front
    4. 27.3 Victory in the European Theater
    5. 27.4 The Pacific Theater and the Atomic Bomb
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  29. 28 Post-War Prosperity and Cold War Fears, 1945-1960
    1. Introduction
    2. 28.1 The Challenges of Peacetime
    3. 28.2 The Cold War
    4. 28.3 The American Dream
    5. 28.4 Popular Culture and Mass Media
    6. 28.5 The African American Struggle for Civil Rights
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  30. 29 Contesting Futures: America in the 1960s
    1. Introduction
    2. 29.1 The Kennedy Promise
    3. 29.2 Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society
    4. 29.3 The Civil Rights Movement Marches On
    5. 29.4 Challenging the Status Quo
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  31. 30 Political Storms at Home and Abroad, 1968-1980
    1. Introduction
    2. 30.1 Identity Politics in a Fractured Society
    3. 30.2 Coming Apart, Coming Together
    4. 30.3 Vietnam: The Downward Spiral
    5. 30.4 Watergate: Nixon’s Domestic Nightmare
    6. 30.5 Jimmy Carter in the Aftermath of the Storm
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  32. 31 From Cold War to Culture Wars, 1980-2000
    1. Introduction
    2. 31.1 The Reagan Revolution
    3. 31.2 Political and Cultural Fusions
    4. 31.3 A New World Order
    5. 31.4 Bill Clinton and the New Economy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  33. 32 The Challenges of the Twenty-First Century
    1. Introduction
    2. 32.1 The War on Terror
    3. 32.2 The Domestic Mission
    4. 32.3 New Century, Old Disputes
    5. 32.4 Hope and Change
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  34. A | The Declaration of Independence
  35. B | The Constitution of the United States
  36. C | Presidents of the United States of America
  37. D | U.S. Political Map
  38. E | U.S. Topographical Map
  39. F | United States Population Chart
  40. G | Further Reading
  41. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
    18. Chapter 18
    19. Chapter 19
    20. Chapter 20
    21. Chapter 21
    22. Chapter 22
    23. Chapter 23
    24. Chapter 24
    25. Chapter 25
    26. Chapter 26
    27. Chapter 27
    28. Chapter 28
    29. Chapter 29
    30. Chapter 30
    31. Chapter 31
    32. Chapter 32
  42. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Explain how Presidents Truman and Eisenhower addressed civil rights issues
  • Discuss efforts by African Americans to end discrimination and segregation
  • Describe southern whites’ response to the civil rights movement

In the aftermath of World War II, African Americans began to mount organized resistance to racially discriminatory policies in force throughout much of the United States. In the South, they used a combination of legal challenges and grassroots activism to begin dismantling the racial segregation that had stood for nearly a century following the end of Reconstruction. Community activists and civil rights leaders targeted racially discriminatory housing practices, segregated transportation, and legal requirements that African Americans and whites be educated separately. While many of these challenges were successful, life did not necessarily improve for African Americans. Hostile whites fought these changes in any way they could, including by resorting to violence.

EARLY VICTORIES

During World War II, many African Americans had supported the “Double V Campaign,” which called on them to defeat foreign enemies while simultaneously fighting against segregation and discrimination at home. After World War II ended, many returned home to discover that, despite their sacrifices, the United States was not willing to extend them any greater rights than they had enjoyed before the war. Particularly rankling was the fact that although African American veterans were legally entitled to draw benefits under the GI Bill, discriminatory practices prevented them from doing so. For example, many banks would not give them mortgages if they wished to buy homes in predominantly African American neighborhoods, which banks often considered too risky an investment. However, African Americans who attempted to purchase homes in white neighborhoods often found themselves unable to do so because of real estate covenants that prevented owners from selling their property to blacks. Indeed, when a black family purchased a Levittown house in 1957, they were subjected to harassment and threats of violence.

Click and Explore

For a look at the experiences of an African American family that tried to move to a white suburban community, view the 1957 documentary Crisis in Levittown.

The postwar era, however, saw African Americans make greater use of the courts to defend their rights. In 1944, an African American woman, Irene Morgan, was arrested in Virginia for refusing to give up her seat on an interstate bus and sued to have her conviction overturned. In Morgan v. the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the conviction should be overturned because it violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. This victory emboldened some civil rights activists to launch the Journey of Reconciliation, a bus trip taken by eight African American men and eight white men through the states of the Upper South to test the South’s enforcement of the Morgan decision.

Other victories followed. In 1948, in Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. Supreme Court held that courts could not enforce real estate covenants that restricted the purchase or sale of property based on race. In 1950, the NAACP brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that they hoped would help to undermine the concept of “separate but equal” as espoused in the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave legal sanction to segregated school systems. Sweatt v. Painter was a case brought by Herman Marion Sweatt, who sued the University of Texas for denying him admission to its law school because state law prohibited integrated education. Texas attempted to form a separate law school for African Americans only, but in its decision on the case, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this solution, holding that the separate school provided neither equal facilities nor “intangibles,” such as the ability to form relationships with other future lawyers, that a professional school should provide.

Not all efforts to enact desegregation required the use of the courts, however. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing first base. He was the first African American to play baseball in the National League, breaking the color barrier. Although African Americans had their own baseball teams in the Negro Leagues, Robinson opened the gates for them to play in direct competition with white players in the major leagues. Other African American athletes also began to challenge the segregation of American sports. At the 1948 Summer Olympics, Alice Coachman, an African American, was the only American woman to take a gold medal in the games (Figure 28.17). These changes, while symbolically significant, were mere cracks in the wall of segregation.

Photograph (a) shows Jackie Robinson posing in his baseball uniform. Photograph (b) shows Alice Coachman completing a high jump, wearing a shirt that reads “Tuskegee.”
Figure 28.17 Baseball legend Jackie Robinson (a) was active in the civil rights movement. He served on the NAACP’s board of directors and helped to found an African American-owned bank. Alice Coachman (b), who competed in track and field at Tuskegee University, was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

DESEGREGATION AND INTEGRATION

Until 1954, racial segregation in education was not only legal but was required in seventeen states and permissible in several others (Figure 28.18). Utilizing evidence provided in sociological studies conducted by Kenneth Clark and Gunnar Myrdal, however, Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP, successfully argued the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas before the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Marshall showed that the practice of segregation in public schools made African American students feel inferior. Even if the facilities provided were equal in nature, the Court noted in its decision, the very fact that some students were separated from others on the basis of their race made segregation unconstitutional.

A map entitled “U.S. School Segregation prior to Brown v. Board of Education” shows the states in which school segregation was mandatory; the states in which school segregation was optional; the states in which school segregation was forbidden; and the states in which school segregation legislation did not exist. States with mandatory school segregation included Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, Virginia and Maryland (including Washington, D.C.), Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. States with optional school segregation included Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Kansas. States forbidding school segregation included Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. States with no school segregation legislation included Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Figure 28.18 This map shows those states in which racial segregation in public education was required by law before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1960, four years later, fewer than 10 percent of southern African American students attended the same schools as white students.

Defining American

Thurgood Marshall on Fighting Racism

As a law student in 1933, Thurgood Marshall (Figure 28.19) was recruited by his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston to assist in gathering information for the defense of a black man in Virginia accused of killing two white women. His continued close association with Houston led Marshall to aggressively defend blacks in the court system and to use the courts as the weapon by which equal rights might be extracted from the U.S. Constitution and a white racist system. Houston also suggested that it would be important to establish legal precedents regarding the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of separate but equal.

A photograph shows Henry L. Moon, Roy Wilkins, Herbert Hill, and Thurgood Marshall holding up a poster that reads “Stamp Out Mississippi-ism! Join NAACP.” In the middle of the poster, a graphic shows the state of Mississippi with a tombstone in the center. The tombstone displays the names of four African Americans murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
Figure 28.19 In 1956, NAACP leaders (from left to right) Henry L. Moon, Roy Wilkins, Herbert Hill, and Thurgood Marshall present a new poster in the campaign against southern white racism. Marshall successfully argued the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) before the U.S. Supreme Court and later became the court’s first African American justice.

By 1938, Marshall had become “Mr. Civil Rights” and formally organized the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1940 to garner the resources to take on cases to break the racist justice system of America. A direct result of Marshall’s energies and commitment was his 1940 victory in a Supreme Court case, Chambers v. Florida, which held that confessions obtained by violence and torture were inadmissible in a court of law. His most well-known case was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which held that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

Later in life, Marshall reflected on his career fighting racism in a speech at Howard Law School in 1978:

Be aware of that myth, that everything is going to be all right. Don’t give in. I add that, because it seems to me, that what we need to do today is to refocus. Back in the 30s and 40s, we could go no place but to court. We knew then, the court was not the final solution. Many of us knew the final solution would have to be politics, if for no other reason, politics is cheaper than lawsuits. So now we have both. We have our legal arm, and we have our political arm. Let’s use them both. And don’t listen to this myth that it can be solved by either or that it has already been solved. Take it from me, it has not been solved.

When Marshall says that the problems of racism have not been solved, to what was he referring?

Plessy v. Fergusson had been overturned. The challenge now was to integrate schools. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered southern school systems to begin desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Some school districts voluntarily integrated their schools. For many other districts, however, “deliberate speed” was very, very slow.

It soon became clear that enforcing Brown v. the Board of Education would require presidential intervention. Eisenhower did not agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and did not wish to force southern states to integrate their schools. However, as president, he was responsible for doing so. In 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was forced to accept its first nine African American students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine. In response, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the state National Guard to prevent the students from attending classes, removing the troops only after Eisenhower told him to do so. A subsequent attempt by the nine students to attend school resulted in mob violence. Eisenhower then placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and sent the U.S. Army’s 101st airborne unit to escort the students to and from school as well as from class to class (Figure 28.20). This was the first time since the end of Reconstruction that federal troops once more protected the rights of African Americans in the South.

A photograph shows uniformed soldiers holding rifles as they escort the Little Rock Nine up the steps of Central High School.
Figure 28.20 In 1957, U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne were called in to escort the Little Rock Nine into and around formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Throughout the course of the school year, the Little Rock Nine were insulted, harassed, and physically assaulted; nevertheless, they returned to school each day. At the end of the school year, the first African American student graduated from Central High. At the beginning of the 1958–1959 school year, Orval Faubus ordered all Little Rock’s public schools closed. In the opinion of white segregationists, keeping all students out of school was preferable to having them attend integrated schools. In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school had to be reopened and that the process of desegregation had to proceed.

WHITE RESPONSES

Efforts to desegregate public schools led to a backlash among most southern whites. Many greeted the Brown decision with horror; some World War II veterans questioned how the government they had fought for could betray them in such a fashion. Some white parents promptly withdrew their children from public schools and enrolled them in all-white private academies, many newly created for the sole purpose of keeping white children from attending integrated schools. Often, these “academies” held classes in neighbors’ basements or living rooms.

Other white southerners turned to state legislatures or courts to solve the problem of school integration. Orders to integrate school districts were routinely challenged in court. When the lawsuits proved unsuccessful, many southern school districts responded by closing all public schools, as Orval Faubus had done after Central High School was integrated. One county in Virginia closed its public schools for five years rather than see them integrated. Besides suing school districts, many southern segregationists filed lawsuits against the NAACP, trying to bankrupt the organization. Many national politicians supported the segregationist efforts. In 1956, ninety-six members of Congress signed “The Southern Manifesto,” in which they accused the U.S. Supreme Court of misusing its power and violating the principle of states’ rights, which maintained that states had rights equal to those of the federal government.

Unfortunately, many white southern racists, frightened by challenges to the social order, responded with violence. When Little Rock’s Central High School desegregated, an irate Ku Klux Klansman from a neighboring community sent a letter to the members of the city’s school board in which he denounced them as Communists and threatened to kill them. White rage sometimes erupted into murder. In August 1955, both white and black Americans were shocked by the brutality of the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago, had been vacationing with relatives in Mississippi. While visiting a white-owned store, he had made a remark to the white woman behind the counter. A few days later, the husband and brother-in-law of the woman came to the home of Till’s relatives in the middle of the night and abducted the boy. Till’s beaten and mutilated body was found in a nearby river three days later. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral; she wished to use her son’s body to reveal the brutality of southern racism. The murder of a child who had been guilty of no more than a casual remark captured the nation’s attention, as did the acquittal of the two men who admitted killing him.

THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT

One of those inspired by Till’s death was Rosa Parks, an NAACP member from Montgomery, Alabama, who became the face of the 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. City ordinances in Montgomery segregated the city’s buses, forcing African American passengers to ride in the back section. They had to enter through the rear of the bus, could not share seats with white passengers, and, if the front of the bus was full and a white passenger requested an African American’s seat, had to relinquish their place to the white rider. The bus company also refused to hire African American drivers even though most of the people who rode the buses were black.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, and the Montgomery police arrested her. After being bailed out of jail, she decided to fight the laws requiring segregation in court. To support her, the Women’s Political Council, a group of African American female activists, organized a boycott of Montgomery’s buses. News of the boycott spread through newspaper notices and by word of mouth; ministers rallied their congregations to support the Women’s Political Council. Their efforts were successful, and forty thousand African American riders did not take the bus on December 5, the first day of the boycott.

Other African American leaders within the city embraced the boycott and maintained it beyond December 5, Rosa Parks’ court date. Among them was a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. For the next year, black Montgomery residents avoided the city’s buses. Some organized carpools. Others paid for rides in African American-owned taxis, whose drivers reduced their fees. Most walked to and from school, work, and church for 381 days, the duration of the boycott. In June 1956, an Alabama federal court found the segregation ordinance unconstitutional. The city appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision. The city’s buses were desegregated.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/us-history/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/us-history/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Dec 30, 2014 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.