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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.
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 require more than a few nudges. But with the support of the federal government, the American public, and local citizens, these victories could be enjoyed.
During the Christmas holiday in 1949, Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at an all-Black college in Alabama, boarded a bus headed to the airport for a trip home to Ohio.
Late for her flight and loaded down with gifts for family, she took a seat just behind the driver in the nearly empty bus. The driver yelled, "Get up from there!" and rose from his seat, threatening to strike her. Frightened and angry, Robinson took her things and left the bus.
This wasn't the first time a white bus driver had raised a hand to a Black female passenger.
In fact, Robinson was aware of dozens of similar episodes. As a founding member of the Women's Political Council (WPC), a group of professional Black women committed to informing the community of injustices, she documented instances in which Black people riding city buses had been denied a bus transfer, forced to pay extra fare, or were verbally abused, assaulted, or arrested.
Robinson and women of the Council kept track of court trials and fines paid by working men and women who violated local segregation laws. In Montgomery, Alabama, the WPC informed the community of each case, distributing handbills with detailed accounts of the events.
Robinson's humiliating ordeal in 1949 pushed the group to seek a new plan of action, one that would be much more than informative.
The WPC was quite aware of the fact that the vast majority of passengers on the city lines were African-American, and predominantly women.
They felt that these facts might be the key to a successful and far-reaching bus boycott. In a letter to Montgomery's mayor, W. A. Gayle, Robinson wrote, "Mayor Gayle, three quarters of the riders of these public conveyances are N****es." She informed him of the stakes, for "If N****es did not patronize [the buses] they could not possibly operate."
But Robinson and the WPC understood that it would be difficult to rally the Black citizens of Alabama to risk harassment, injury, and the loss of work in protest of something that many considered simply a fact of life.
They needed the right moment and the right person to represent the issue and inspire the community to take action. With the help of the NAACP, the group selected Rosa Parks, a respectable, strong-willed woman, who on the first day of December 1955, was arrested for disobeying a bus driver's orders to rise to allow a white man to sit.
Parks, like many other Black citizens, had resisted these kinds of demands several times before, but this time, her act would become the rallying cry for thousands of protesters.
With Parks' trial approaching, the WPC urged Jo Ann Robinson to notify the community and initiate the boycott.
Robinson stayed up all night making 35,000 copies of a handbill to be distributed not only to men and women, but to school children so that they would take it home to their parents.
"This is for Monday, Dec. 5, 1955—Another N**** woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This has to be stopped," the handbill announced. "We are asking every N**** to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday."
The Women's Political Council planned a one-day strike, but knew that if enough people participated, it could be extended as long as it might be necessary to convince city, state, or even federal officials to desegregate the buses.
The WPC allowed the NAACP and other Black leaders to decide whether the Monday boycott had been successful and, if so, how long it should continue.
Ultimately, more than 50,000 people—women and men, mostly Black, but some white citizens, as well—participated in the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. The massive demonstration of courage and perseverance captured the attention of the Supreme Court, which in December 1956 struck down Alabama's segregation laws.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott has been remembered as a spontaneous act sparked by Rosa Parks, "the seamstress with tired feet," who in December of 1955 refused to relinquish her seat on a segregated city bus.
But in reality, the boycott was neither spontaneous nor ignited by a single act of defiance. Black students and working men and women who depended upon public transportation had been defending themselves against treatment they deemed unfair for at least a decade prior to the famous Parks confrontation.
Under the leadership of an organization of African-American women, the Black community had prepared for the fight long before Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other Black leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association decided to extend the strike beyond its monumental first day.
Jo Ann Robinson and the Women's Political Council conceived of, initiated, and provided much of the drive for one of the most significant and effective boycotts in American history.
In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal raised the expectations of Black working people.
"We're gonna have a better day. That was the feeling," African-American sociologist Horace Cayton remembers. Through employment relief agencies such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), "you worked, you got a paycheck and you had some dignity."
Within this context, leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Jo Ann Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, and thousands of regular Black and white folks built upon the direct action strategies of the 1940s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, heralded as a revolutionary expansion of government power, didn't attack the problem of racial discrimination in employment, and it didn't do much at all to prevent lynching or to eliminate the poll tax which restricted most Blacks from voting in the South.
Whites throughout the country, but particularly in the South, used terror and disenfranchisement to create rigid boundaries within which Black economic progress would be limited. Without federal legislation securing Black voting rights and persecuting racial violence, African-American citizens had little chance to gain economic independence, a right by which the "American Dream" was defined.
But through his efforts to build a coalition of all classes of people, including immigrants, farmers, union members, and Blacks, President Roosevelt convinced the vast majority of African Americans that he cared about their plight and would do his best to offer solutions.
By the election of 1936, Black voters in significant numbers aligned themselves with the Democratic Party rather than support Republicans. That is, in an unprecedented transfer of party loyalty, Black Americans broke from the party that had supported abolition and emancipation, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and the party that had delivered Radical Reconstruction.
His grandparents owned slaves, his mother resented Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and as a child raised in Missouri, he'd known segregation pretty well.
Still, Roosevelt's successor committed himself to challenging Jim Crow institutions.
Not once, but twice, President Truman attempted to interest Congress in an extensive civil rights program including a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, national laws against lynching, and measures to ensure voting rights and equal access to education. He authorized a Committee on Civil Rights to recommend needed reforms and to protect people from discrimination, and in 1947, he became the first U.S. prez to address the NAACP.
Truman planned to carry on the liberal heritage of the past decade, but while the legacy of Roosevelt's New Deal social programs survived the war, America's desire for social and economic reform had faded.
The country was far more conservative than it had been during Roosevelt's reign, and because of this, Truman was largely unsuccessful in his goals.
Although Truman made bold promises to African Americans for an immediate end to segregation, lynching, voting restrictions, and job discrimination, he was unable to deliver on nearly all of them.
He did, however, manage to preserve one piece of his civil rights program when in 1948, he used his authority as commander in chief to issue Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces.
In 1952, after twenty years of Democrats in the White House, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidential election.
He deemed himself the champion of the "forgotten man"—the hardworking American burdened by high taxes and big government. A.k.a. he opposed using federal authority to grant civil rights.
So, Eisenhower had a distaste for liberal social programs, sympathized with Southern segregationists, and privately disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Regarding his nomination of Earl Warren, the Supreme Court justice who led the unanimous decision, he lamented that it was "the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made."blank">Lyndon B. Johnson, a president often obscured by the shadow of Kennedy, his predecessor, would deliver on more promises to Black Americans than any other president before him.