In 1954, the Supreme Court took a momentous step: In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. the court set aside a Kansas statute permitting cities of more than 15,000 to maintain separate schools for blacks and whites and ruled instead that all segregation in public schools is "inherently unequal" and that all blacks barred from attending public schools with white pupils are denied equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The doctrine was extended to state-supported colleges and universities in 1956. Meanwhile, in 1955 the court implemented its 1954 opinion by declaring that the federal district courts would have jurisdiction over lawsuits to enforce the desegregation decision and asked that desegregation proceed "with all deliberate speed."
At the time of the 1954 decision, laws in 17 southern and border states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri) and the District of Columbia required that elementary schools be segregated. Four other states—Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming—had laws permitting segregated schools, but Wyoming had never exercised the option, and the problem was not important in the other three. Although discrimination existed in the other states of the Union, it was not sanctioned by law.
The struggle over desegregation now centered upon the school question. By the end of 1957 nine of the 17 states and the District of Columbia had begun integration of their school systems. Another five states had some integrated schools by 1961. The states mostly fell back on stopgap measures or on pupil-placement laws, which assigned students to schools ostensibly on nonracial grounds. Forced integration led to much violence. The most notable instance was the defiance in 1957 of federal orders by Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration in Little Rock. President Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to enforce the court order for integration.
In 1958 Virginia closed nine schools in four counties rather than have them integrated, but Virginia and federal courts ruled these moves illegal. In 1960 desegregation began in Louisiana; whites boycotted the integrated New Orleans public schools at first triumphantly, later with diminishing effectiveness. In 1961 two black students registered at the Univ. of Georgia but were suspended because of student disorders; they were later returned under a federal judge's order.
In 1962–63 violence erupted in Mississippi, precipitating a serious crisis in federal-state relations. Against the opposition of Gov. Ross R. Barnett, James H. Meredith, a black who was supported by federal court orders, registered at the Univ. of Mississippi in 1962. A mob gathered and attacked the force of several hundred federal marshals assigned to protect Meredith; two persons were killed. The next day federal troops occupied Oxford and restored order. Meredith became the first African American to attend a Mississippi public school with white students in accord with the 1954 court decision.
In 1963, South Carolina's Clemson College became the first integrated public school in that state. Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama stood in a doorway at the Univ. of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to block two black students from enrolling in 1963; the attempt failed. In the North attempts were also made to combat segregation. After a suit brought by black parents in 1960, the school system of New Rochelle, N.Y., was in 1961 ordered by a federal judge to be desegregated. Similar suits followed in other cities.
The fight over education overshadowed efforts to achieve integration in other areas, but moves against segregation in public transportation did gain wide notice. In 1955–56, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led blacks in Montgomery, Ala., in a boycott against the municipal bus system after Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the segregated section of a bus. The boycott was brought to a successful conclusion when, on Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court nullified the laws of Alabama and the ordinances of Montgomery that required segregation on buses.
Mixed groups of whites and blacks, called Freedom Riders, in May, 1961, undertook a campaign to force integration in bus terminals and challenge segregation in local interstate travel facilities. The buses were attacked by mobs in Anniston, Ala., where one bus was destroyed by a firebomb. There were riots in Birmingham and Montgomery when blacks attempted to use facilities previously reserved for whites; federal marshals and the National Guard were called out to restore order and escort the Freedom Riders to Mississippi. Many of them were arrested in Jackson, Miss., for infractions of the state's segregation laws, and a long series of court battles began. These protests led in 1961 to an Interstate Commerce Commission ban on segregation in all interstate transportation facilities.
Passive resistance was undertaken by groups to eradicate discrimination in other fields. In 1960 black college students staged a sit-in at segregated public lunch counters in an effort to force desegregation; similar demonstrations were made in other cities. Other campaigns were waged with some success for the desegregation of beaches, restaurants, theaters, and libraries. In 1957, New York City adopted the first law forbidding racial or religious discrimination in private rental housing. During the summer of 1963 thousands of blacks demonstrated in Birmingham, Ala., and were attacked by police using cattle prods and dogs. Nationwide revulsion to these attacks was expressed when over 200,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., and pressed for further civil-rights legislation.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.