Truman and Civil Rights
Truman was the first modern president to use the powers of his office to challenge racial discrimination. The president used his executive powers to establish the Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. He also strengthened the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which aided the efforts of black leaders to end segregation in schools.
In 1948 he ordered the end of racial discrimination throughout the federal government including the armed forces. Truman urged Congress to create a Fair Employment Practice Commission that would prevent employers from discriminating against the hiring of African Americans, but Southern Democrats blocked the legislation.
In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till left his home in Chicago to visit his uncle and cousin in Mississippi. Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments. Till purchased bubble gum, and in later accounts he was accused of either whistling at, flirting with or touching the hand of the store's white female clerk—and wife of the owner—Carolyn Bryant.
In the middle of the night, Till was kidnapped and murdered. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the river, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water. Three days later, his corpse was pulled out of the river.
Till's body was shipped to Chicago, where his mother opted to have an open-casket funeral with Till's body on display for five days. Thousands of people came to the Roberts Temple Church of God to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime.
Till's mother said that, despite the enormous pain it caused her to see her son's dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral in an effort to "let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like."
In addition to arguing that segregation was morally wrong, the NAACP argued that separate schools were psychologically damaging to black children. In an experiment, when black children were shown two dolls identical except for their skin color and asked to choose the “nice doll” they chose the white doll. When asked to choose the doll that “looks bad” they chose the dark-skinned doll. With these results, the NAACP argued that segregation system caused feelings of inferiority in the black child. Attorneys then sought reliable plaintiffs who could withstand the racist intimidation and reprisals that followed the filing of the lawsuit.
The NAACP searched carefully for a case to challenge legal public school segregation and selected the case of Linda Brown. She was an African American student in Topeka, KA and was required to attend a segregated school.
The NAACP had been working through the courts for decades trying to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed segregation in “separate but equal” facilities. In the case Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a team of NAACP lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall, argued that segregation of black children in the public schools was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.”
In May 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy case. Writing for a unanimous Court Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that:
separate facilities are inherently unequal and unconstitutional
school segregation would now end
A year later after many schools had not desegregated, the Court ordered the lower courts to proceed with “all deliberate speed” to desegregate public schools in Brown II.
Resistance in the South
Opposition to the Brown decision erupted throughout the South. To start with, 101 members of Congress signed the “Southern Manifesto,” a document denouncing the ruling and promising to use all legal means to maintain “separate but equal” as the status quo and condemning the Supreme Court for a ”clear abuse of judicial power.” States fought the decision several ways, including the temporary closing of the public schools and setting up private schools.
School boards found a variety of ways to evade the Court's ruling. The most successful way was via pupil placement laws. They enabled local officials to assign individual students to schools on the basis of scholastic aptitude, ability to adjust, and “morals, conduct, health, and personal standards.”
Montgomery Bus Boycott
African Americans faced many dangers and inconveniences when traveling the highway system. In response, Victor Green wrote The Negro Motorist Green Book to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans, eventually expanding its coverage from the New York area to much of North America, as well as founding a travel agency.
In 1955, as a Montgomery, Alabama, bus took on more white passengers, the driver ordered a middle-aged black woman to give up her seat to one of them. Rosa Parks refused and her arrest for violating the segregation law sparked a massive African American protest in the form of a boycott of the city buses. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., minister of the Baptist church where the boycott started, soon emerged as the inspirational leader of a nonviolent movement to end segregation. King’s voice became familiar to the entire nation.
Unlike many African American preachers, he never shouted, but captured his audience by presenting his ideas with both passion and compelling cadence. King claimed the idea of passive resistance or peaceful nonresistance. He told protestors in Montgomery “If cursed, do not curse back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.”
In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organized ministers and churches in the South to get behind the civil rights struggle.
In February 1960, college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, started the sit-in movement after being refused service at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter.
To call attention to the injustice of segregated facilities, students would deliberately invite arrest by sitting in restricted areas.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed a few months later to keep the movement organized. They would use the sit-in tactics to integrate restaurants, hotels, buildings, libraries, pools, and transportation throughout the South.
The Montgomery boycott resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation laws were unconstitutional. The boycott also sparked other civil rights protests that reshaped America over the coming decades.