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Law in Civil Rights Movement: Desegregation

Deep Roots of a Landmark Decision

The landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 delivered a decisive blow to legal segregation in the United States, was rooted in a long line of legal battles over educational opportunities. The famous case marked the dramatic culmination of a strategic assault that began in 1848 when Benjamin Roberts filed suit against Massachusetts for refusing to allow his five-year-old daughter to enroll in a local all-white elementary school.13 Roberts's loss would be the first of many setbacks in the fight for equal education for black Americans, but this brave legal challenge provided an example for dozens of plaintiffs who would testify to the inadequacies and injustices of segregated education.

By the 1930s, each state that followed the doctrine of "separate but equal" provided all-white elementary and high schools as well as all-black schools. By accommodating both black and white children, state governments fulfilled their responsibilities under Jim Crow law...or so it seemed. Few of these states had constructed separate university and professional schools for non-whites under the notion that very few blacks matriculated beyond high school. For those few graduates wishing to continue their education, governments allotted funds to send them to out-of-state schools. Those committed to dismantling school segregation began by arguing that these kinds of loopholes violated federal law.

In 1936, the University of Missouri School of Law refused to admit Lloyd Lionel Gaines, an African-American college graduate, on account of his race. The state of Missouri promised to construct a law school at the all-black Lincoln University and advised the 25-year-old Gaines to apply there instead. The new law school would take years to construct and Gaines, if granted admission, would have to wait indefinitely to begin his program. The state offered him only one additional choice: he could accept a scholarship to attend a school outside Missouri. Gaines refused the funding, and sued the state. He lost his case, just as he expected he would.

Charles Houston, a black veteran of World War I and one of the few African Americans to graduate from Harvard Law School, chose to help Lloyd Gaines appeal his case to the United States Supreme Court. Houston, leading the legal team of the NAACP, believed success against the state of Missouri would set an important precedent against the "separate but equal" doctrine instituted by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. He intended to convince the Supreme Court that Missouri had violated Plessy because it did not in fact have "separate but equal" colleges available for black applicants, and without adequate funding to build new segregated facilities, the state would be forced to admit non-white students into its all-white schools. Houston understood that state governments could not afford to maintain a truly "separate but equal" system of colleges and universities. The law could not be followed and Houston planned to exploit that fact to "make plain the inequality" in access to education for blacks and whites.

In 1938, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gaines v. Canada and ruled in favor of Gaines, ordering his admission to the University of Missouri. Each state was responsible for providing equal access to legal education to its white and black residents and could not avoid fulfilling that obligation by simply sending non-white law students out of state or forcing them to wait for the construction of new schools. By denying black students the same opportunities created for white students, Missouri had violated Gaines's "constitutional privilege."

Several years following the Gaines decision, Heman Sweatt, a black mail carrier from Houston, Texas, sued the University of Texas School of Law for denying him entrance on the basis of race. Like Gaines, Sweatt lost his initial case. Around the same time, George McLaurin, a 68-year-old black professor seeking admission to a doctoral program, learned that his acceptance to the University of Oklahoma was to be under Jim Crow arrangements. McLaurin would be relegated to a small room cordoned off from the regular classroom, he would be required to work in a segregated space in the library, and he would be forced to eat at a designated table and only at a time when white students would not be using the university cafeteria.

In 1950, with the help of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, one of Charles Houston's best students, Sweatt and McLaurin brought their cases before the United States Supreme Court. In two consecutive rulings, the Court stated that each school had violated the Constitution. The University of Texas could not possibly create an all-black law school equal to its all-white institution, the Court said, and so Sweatt was to be awarded admission. And the segregation practiced by the University of Oklahoma's Graduate School of Education, the Court declared, violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave all Americans equal protection under the law.

Brown v. Board of Education

Victory in both the Sweatt and the McLaurin cases opened the door for civil rights lawyers to challenge segregation in elementary and high schools. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP gathered together five class action lawsuits, each calling for an end to segregated education for children. Under the title Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., the Supreme Court heard the testimonies of nearly 200 plaintiffs from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Virginia who revealed the fatal flaws of the doctrine of "separate but equal." In its final ruling, the Court agreed: "To separate [Negro students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way very unlikely ever to be undone." Justice Earl Warren led a unanimous decision to declare "separate but equal" unconstitutional, and in one fell swoop the United States Supreme Court shattered the legal rationale upon which racial discrimination had been protected.14

Segregationists React and Resist

A poll taken in 1955 revealed that over 80% of white Southerners opposed desegregation. Segregationist political leaders were especially vocal in their abhorrence of the Brown v. Board ruling. White southern leaders referred to the day the Court delivered its decision as "Black Monday," a reference to the term "Black Tuesday" which marked the infamous Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. "Ending segregation," Governor James F. Byrnes of South Carolina warned, "would mark the beginning of the end of civilization in the South as we have known it."15 Governor Herman Talmadge of Georgia deplored the Court's ruling in favor of integration and remarked that it would result in intermarriage and the "mongrelization of the races."16 Alabama Senator Walter Givhan asked whether the real motives of the NAACP lawyers were "to open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men."17 Even President Dwight Eisenhower, who spent much of his childhood in the southern state of Texas, said "I am convinced that the Supreme Court decision set back progress in the South at least fifteen years."18

In March of 1956, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and Virginia Senator Harry Byrd drafted a document on behalf of segregationist leaders in the South. "The Southern Manifesto" declared the southern white elites' opposition to the Supreme Court decision. "We commend the motives of those States," they wrote, "which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means." These leaders managed to successfully resist integration for several years following the Court's ruling.19

Without All Deliberate Speed

In its original ruling, the Supreme Court stated no specific plan of action, no timeline, and no instructions for implementing integration in schools. It merely informed Jim Crow states that desegregation should be carried out "with all deliberate speed," which for black citizens and civil rights workers amounted to little more than an empty promise. As Charles Houston remarked, "Nobody needs to explain to a Negro the difference between the law in books and the law in action."20 Because implementation was in the hands of each school district, and because many southern school districts and local governments remained controlled by segregationist whites, most schools in the South continued to practice segregation well into the 1960s. Nearly a decade after the Brown v. Board decision, a mere 8% of southern schools had been fully integrated.

Despite these limitations, the Brown v. Board decision did have far-reaching effects in that it proved to civil rights leaders and to all of black America that legal battles against Jim Crow could be waged and won. Implementation would be difficult, but with the support of the federal government, the American public, and local citizens, these victories could be enjoyed.

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