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Segregation And The Civil Rights Movement Essay, Research Paper

Segregation and The Civil Rights Movement

Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every

sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often

called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s who

was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks.

Segregation became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstruction

in 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865),

Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners,

and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws

opening up economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 the

Democratic Party had gained control of government in the Southern states, and

these Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made during

Reconstruction. To that end, they began to pass local and state laws that

specified certain places “For Whites Only” and others for “Colored.” Blacks had

separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were

poorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over the next 75 years, Jim Crow

signs went up to separate the races in every possible place. The system of

segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement.

Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for

voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th

Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to

protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read

and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to

education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and

paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, who

were very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all these

hurdles could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidates

because they were open only to whites in most Southern states. Because blacks

could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating

all aspects of Southern life. They could do little to stop discrimination in

public accommodations, education, economic opportunities, or housing. The

ability to struggle for equality was even undermined by the prevalent Jim Crow

signs, which constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status in Southern

society. Segregation was an all encompassing system. Conditions for blacks in

Northern states were somewhat better, though up to 1910 only about 10 percent of

blacks lived in the North, and prior to World War II (1939-1945), very few

blacks lived in the West. Blacks were usually free to vote in the North, but

there were so few blacks that their voices were barely heard. Segregated

facilities were not as common in the North, but blacks were usually denied

entrance to the best hotels and restaurants. Schools in New England were usually

integrated, but those in the Midwest generally were not. Perhaps the most

difficult part of Northern life was the intense economic discrimination against

blacks. They had to compete with large numbers of recent European immigrants for

job opportunities and almost always lost.

Early Black Resistance to Segregation

Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s blacks

sued in court to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states’

disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One

of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in

which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “separate but equal”

accommodations were constitutional. In fact, separate was almost never equal,

but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation for

the next 50 years. To protest segregation, blacks created new national

organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagara

Movement in 1905; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored

People (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910 the National Urban League was created to help

blacks make the transition to urban, industrial life. The NAACP became one of

the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied

mainly on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in

courts to obtain equal treatment for blacks. An early leader of the NAACP was

the historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who starting in 1910 made

powerful arguments in favor of protesting segregation as editor of the NAACP

magazine, The Crisis. NAACP lawyers won court victories over voter

disfranchisement in 1915 and residential segregation in 1917, but failed to have

lynching outlawed by the Congress of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

These cases laid the foundation for a legal and social challenge to segregation

although they did little to change everyday life. In 1935 Charles H. Houston,

the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, won the first Supreme Court case argued by

exclusively black counsel representing the NAACP. This win invigorated the

NAACP’s legal efforts against segregation, mainly by convincing courts that

segregated facilities, especially schools, were not equal. In 1939 the NAACP

created a separate organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that had a

nonprofit, tax-exempt status that was denied to the NAACP because it lobbied the

U.S. Congress. Houston’s chief aide and later his successor, Thurgood Marshall,

a brilliant young lawyer who would become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,

began to challenge segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

World War I

When World War I (1914-1918) began, blacks enlisted to fight for their country.

However, black soldiers were segregated, denied the opportunity to be leaders,

and were subjected to racism within the armed forces. During the war, hundreds

of thousands of Southern blacks migrated northward in 1916 and 1917 to take

advantage of job openings in Northern cities created by the war. This great

migration of Southern blacks continued into the 1950s. Along with the great

migration, blacks in both the North and South became increasingly urbanized

during the 20th century. In 1890, about 85 percent of all Southern blacks lived

in rural areas; by 1960 that percentage had decreased to about 42 percent. In

the North, about 95 percent of all blacks lived in urban areas in 1960. The

combination of the great migration and the urbanization of blacks resulted in

black communities in the North that had a strong political presence. The black

communities began to exert pressure on politicians, voting for those who

supported civil rights. These Northern black communities, and the politicians

that they elected, helped Southern blacks struggling against segregation by

using political influence and money.

The 1930s

The Great Depression of the 1930s increased black protests against

discrimination, especially in Northern cities. Blacks protested the refusal of

white-owned businesses in all-black neighborhoods to hire black salespersons.

Using the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” these campaigns persuaded

blacks to boycott those businesses and revealed a new militancy. During the same

years, blacks organized school boycotts in Northern cities to protest

discriminatory treatment of black children. The black protest activities of the

1930s were encouraged by the expanding role of government in the economy and

society. During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the

federal government created federal programs, such as Social Security, to assure

the welfare of individual citizens. Roosevelt himself was not an outspoken

supporter of black rights, but his wife Eleanor became an open advocate for

fairness to blacks, as did other leaders in the administration. The Roosevelt

Administration opened federal jobs to blacks and turned the federal judiciary

away from its preoccupation with protecting the freedom of business corporations

and toward the protection of individual rights, especially those of the poor and

minority groups. Beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black to the U.S.

Supreme Court in 1937, Roosevelt chose judges who favored black rights. As early

as 1938, the courts displayed a new attitude toward black rights; that year the

Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was obligated to provide access

to a public law school for blacks just as it provided for whites-a new emphasis

on the equal part of the Plessy doctrine. Blacks sensed that the national

government might again be their ally, as it had been during the Civil War.

World War II

When World War II began in Europe in 1939, blacks demanded better treatment than

they had experienced in World War I. Black newspaper editors insisted during

1939 and 1940 that black support for this war effort would depend on fair

treatment. They demanded that black soldiers be trained in all military roles

and that black civilians have equal opportunities to work in war industries at

home. In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car

Porters, a union whose members were mainly black railroad workers, planned a

March on Washington to demand that the federal government require defense

contractors to hire blacks on an equal basis with whites. To forestall the march,

President Roosevelt issued an executive order to that effect and created the

federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce it. The FEPC did

not prevent discrimination in war industries, but it did provide a lesson to

blacks about how the threat of protest could result in new federal commitments

to civil rights. During World War II, blacks composed about one-eighth of the

U.S. armed forces, which matched their presence in the general population.

Although a disproportionately high number of blacks were put in noncombat,

support positions in the military, many did fight. The Army Air Corps trained

blacks as pilots in a controversial segregated arrangement in Tuskegee, Alabama.

During the war, all the armed services moved toward equal treatment of blacks,

though none flatly rejected segregation. In the early war years, hundreds of

thousands of blacks left Southern farms for war jobs in Northern and Western

cities. In fact more blacks migrated to the North and the West during World War

II than had left during the previous war. Although there was racial tension and

conflict in their new homes, blacks were free of the worst racial oppression,

and they enjoyed much larger incomes. After the war blacks in the North and West

used their economic and political influence to support civil rights for Southern

blacks. Blacks continued to work against discrimination during the war,

challenging voting registrars in Southern courthouses and suing school boards

for equal educational provisions. The membership of the NAACP grew from 50,000

to about 500,000. In 1944 the NAACP won a major victory in Smith v. Allwright,

which outlawed the white primary. A new organization, the Congress of Racial

Equality (CORE), was founded in 1942 to challenge segregation in public

accommodations in the North. During the war, black newspapers campaigned for a

Double V, victories over both fascism in Europe and racism at home. The war

experience gave about one million blacks the opportunity to fight racism in

Europe and Asia, a fact that black veterans would remember during the struggle

against racism at home after the war. Perhaps just as important, almost ten

times that many white Americans witnessed the patriotic service of black

Americans. Many of them would object to the continued denial of civil rights to

the men and women beside whom they had fought. After World War II the momentum

for racial change continued. Black soldiers returned home with determination to

have full civil rights. President Harry Truman ordered the final desegregation

of the armed forces in 1948. He also committed to a domestic civil rights policy

favoring voting rights and equal employment, but the U.S. Congress rejected his

proposals. School Desegregation

In the postwar years, the NAACP’s legal strategy for civil rights continued to

succeed. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged and

overturned many forms of discrimination, but their main thrust was equal

educational opportunities. For example, in Sweat v. Painter (1950), the Supreme

Court decided that the University of Texas had to integrate its law school.

Marshall and the Defense Fund worked with Southern plaintiffs to challenge the

Plessy doctrine directly, arguing in effect that separate was inherently unequal.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary-

and secondary-school segregation, and in May 1954 issued its landmark ruling in

Brown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education was

unconstitutional. White Southerners received the Brown decision first with shock

and, in some instances, with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, white

opposition in the South had grown into massive resistance, a strategy to

persuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation orders. It was

believed that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court order,

it could not be enforced. Tactics included firing school employees who showed

willingness to seek integration, closing public schools rather than

desegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated. The

White Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation all

over the South. The Citizens Council called for economic coercion of blacks who

favored integrated schools, such as firing them from jobs, and the creation of

private, all-white schools. Virtually no schools in the South were desegregated

in the first years after the Brown decision. In Virginia one county did indeed

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