This famous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case established the doctrine of "separate but equal"…otherwise known as the biggest oxymoron since True Lies.
The petitioner in the case was challenging a Louisiana law that required trains to have "equal, but separate" coaches. Under this law, train operators could refuse service to African Americans if they tried to sit in the white coach. At the time, this was mainstream racism, but if you read the case today it sounds like something from a parallel universe. (Source)
The Court's official opinion held that segregation in public transportation, schools, and private businesses was Constitutional. The reasoning was that none of this violated the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments. In other words, they thought it was fine because it wasn't slavery, and didn't take away citizenship.
Huh. That's right up there with saying "Hey—armed robbery's okay. It's not like it's murder, guys."
The Court also held that:
"Laws forbidding the intermarriage of the two races may be said in a technical sense to interfere with the freedom of contract, and yet have been universally recognized as within the police power of the State." (Source)
Yikes. Technically, that's an official legal decision—yet it is now universally recognized as insane.
The 1955 Supreme Court case reversed Plessy v. Fergusson. In the new ruling, the Court struck down the idea of "separate but equal" schools, which: great—it only took them forty-nine years to figure out that a law was downright evil.
The majority opinion held that segregation inherently led to inequality, and it was impossible in practice to give African Americans the same opportunities and facilities as long as they were separated from white people.
This ruling led to massive tensions in the South. When African American students entered some formerly white schools, they had to be escorted by law enforcement. Angry bigots stood outside schools picketing and jeering, and Southern leaders like George Wallace promised to protect segregation. (Source)
Like many famous Supreme Court Cases, this one changed American society, and there was no going back. Economic and educational equality was not established overnight, but the law started to lean against racial discrimination. Now the segregators were officially living in the past…instead of just unofficially living in the past.
Racist laws and practices known as "Jim Crow" laws dominated southern politics in the mid-twentieth century. The term Jim Crow comes from characters in "minstrel shows," theatrical performances that represented African Americans using racist stereotypes. (Source)
Yeah: that should be your first clue that these laws were insanely messed-up.
The Jim Crow regime included a number of racially divided laws and non-legal practices. The laws demanded segregated schools and trains, and separation of real estate by race. There was even an Alabama law that disallowed African Americans and white people to play cards together—because nothing challenges the status quo like a game of Crazy Eights? Seriously: what were these lawmakers thinking? (Source)
In contemporary times, journalists, sociologists, politicians, and scholars debate whether economic inequality between the races constitutes a "new Jim Crow" (source).
Alabama governor George Wallace is famous for a quote from his inaugural address: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
And that, folks, is just the tip of the racist, racist iceberg.
In 1958, Wallace lost a campaign for governor to a candidate that had been supported by the Ku Klux Klan, a militant white power group. After that happened, he ramped up his segregationist rhetoric. That did the trick. He became governor in 1962 and promised to "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent integration of African American and white students. (Source)
Oh yeah—this guy was a gem…if but "gem" we mean "bigoted tub of gray mayonnaise."
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave Wallace a shout-out in his "I Have a Dream" speech, because you don't address 200,000 people about the problem of racism in America without mentioning the #1 Racist In America. He referred to Alabama's "vicious racists" (16.1) and then said the governor's lips were "dripping" (16.1) with segregationist rhetoric.
You tell 'em, MLK.
Anybody can make a difference, and it can be as simple as saying, "No."
In 1955, Rosa Parks was riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The normal practice on buses was to make African Americans sit in the back, while white people got to sit in the front. Sometimes bus drivers would even drive off before African Americans had a chance to board.
Basically, take the frustration of missing a bus, add about a ton and half of racially-motivated persecution and injustice, and you're almost halfway to how jacked up this was.
One day, Rosa Parks was riding the bus and refused to give up her seat to a white woman. This was an unorganized, spontaneous example of a "sit-in," a type of protest where African Americans would just go sit where they weren't "supposed" to sit (for example, segregated restaurants).
Rosa Parks' action was an initial step in the bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. African Americans stopped riding buses in Montgomery to protest the injustices of the day.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wife kept his legacy alive after his assassination in 1968. A prolific journalist and author, she advocated a number of causes, continuing her husband's philosophy of non-violent protest.
Scott King wasn't quiet while her husband was alive either, joining other activists in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When Ghana became the first African nation to go independent (they shook off the British), Scott King went across the pond to witness the era-shifting occasion. She even used her musical background from college to throw some freedom concerts, kind of like Mahalia Jackson. You could say she was a Renaissance woman.
Scott King's public speaking abilities made her the first woman to speak at Harvard during "Class Day," which is an event that happens during the school's commencement. (Apparently, regular commencement is just not up to snuff in Cambridge.) (Source)
Along with her activity during the Civil Rights Movement, Scott King protested the war in Vietnam, supported pro-labor movements, and ran anti-poverty programs. (Source)
In the '80s she was one of the high-profile American voices speaking out against South African apartheid. Her prolific activity reflected the scope of the movement led by King and other activists. This thing wasn't just about racism in America: it was also about peace and equality worldwide. (Source)
During the Civil Rights Movement, it was raining men. The so-called "Big Six" leaders who organized the March on Washington were all guys. It was pretty much a screening of Monday Night Football in a "no girls allowed" tree house.
So where were the women?
They were definitely participating in the sit-ins, protests, bus boycotts, marches, and organizing. But according to at least one woman involved in the movement, Anna Hedgeman, they got pushed to the side by the boys.
In the '50s, Hedgeman had become the first woman to serve on the New York mayoral commission. Over her early career she built up more connections with the African American Protestant community than a circuit board. A significant number of African American Protestants showed up at the March on Washington at her behest. (Source)
Hedgeman was part of the official committee that organized the March, alongside the "Big Six." Hedgeman opposed Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph on their decision to exclude other women from the committee. She was outnumbered, so things didn't turn out as she would have liked. Her efforts to get a woman a major speaking slot at the event failed. The only woman to deliver remarks was Daisy Bates, who only presented other women (like Rosa Parks) with awards for their service.
During the March on Washington, prominent women were grouped into a single bloc with the wives of the major leaders—yep, they didn't even go boy-girl, boy-girl. (Source)
Discrimination based on race was doubly difficult for African American women, who also had to deal with discrimination based on gender. Remember, this was the '60s—an era of blatant sexism in much of mainstream society and media.
But Hedgeman didn't stop advocating for women beyond the 1963 March. She was one of the original founders of the National Organization for Women…proving once and for all that the idea of a "weaker sex" is patently false. (Source)
Obama, the first African American president of the United States, has been compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. for his public speaking abilities. Some people see his presidency as evidence of the fulfillment of MLK's "dream"—after all, in the span of forty-five years, we went from living in a country where there was no Civil Rights Act to a country led by a Black president.
But is that true? Does having had an African American president mean that dream has come true? These are controversial and divisive questions in twenty-first century America. According to some statistics African Americans are more likely than white people to think racism is still a problem. (Source)
It makes sense when you consider people's different experiences. How are you supposed to know there's racism going on if you're not the primary target?
In a now-famous campaign speech during the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama addressed this very issue. The speech has become known as "A More Perfect Union." (Source)
Here's the context: Obama had come under criticism for the comments of one of his former pastors, Jeremiah Wright. In sermons, Wright had criticized America, and claimed that racism was pervasive throughout all levels of society.
Obama's response to this: racism is still around, but we've made progress. Still, just because we've made progress doesn't mean we should stop. His ideas about race were captured in a particularly famous line:
"In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed."
If you substitute the idea of "a more perfect union" for the idea of a "dream," you're almost reading "I Have a Dream II."
The speech was enough to dispel most of the controversy about Wright and propel Obama toward the White House. It's a fitting response, almost fifty years later, to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s proclamation that 1963 was just the beginning.