The Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement - dummies

The Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement

By Steve Wiegand

By the 1950s, after fighting through two world wars and struggling through the Depression, many African Americans had had enough of running in place. The result was a series of events that added up to the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Brown against the board

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most important decisions. In a case called Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the court ruled that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.

It overturned an 1896 Supreme Court decision that had said schools could be segregated if the facilities that were offered different groups were equal (which of course they seldom, if ever, were).

“We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The court followed its decision a year later with broad rules for desegregating America’s schools, but they included no timetable. Some communities moved quickly. But others, mostly in the South, made it clear they were in no hurry to comply with the court’s ruling. By 1957, only about 20 percent of Southern school districts had even begun the process.

In September 1957, a federal court ordered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, desegregated. A white mob decided to block the admission of nine black students, and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to do anything about it. So a reluctant President Eisenhower sent in 1,000 federal troops and activated 10,000 members of the National Guard to protect the students and escort them to class.

In the same month, Congress passed a bill that

  • Authorized the attorney general to stop Southern elected officials from interfering with African Americans registering to vote

  • Established a federal Civil Rights Commission

  • Created a civil rights enforcement division within the U.S. Justice Department.

The sad fact, however, was that in many places in the South, the laws went largely unenforced.

Boycotting the bus

Like a rock dropped in a still pond, the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation started ripples of change throughout the country. One of them hit Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955. A 42-year-old African-American woman named Rosa Parks was tired after a long day working, and she was tired of being treated as a second-class human being.

So Parks refused to get up from her seat on the bus when the driver demanded she give it to a white man. That was against the law, and Parks was arrested.

Her arrest sparked a boycott of the bus system by the black community. Facing the highly damaging boycott and a 1956 Supreme Court decision that declared segregation on public transportation unconstitutional, the Montgomery bus company dropped its race-based seating plan in 1957.

More important than getting to ride in the front of the bus was the example the boycott set as to how effective organized demonstrations against segregation could be. Equally important was the emergence on the national scene of the boycott’s leader, an eloquent, charismatic son of a well-known Atlanta minister, who admired the non-violent protest philosophies of India’s Mohandas Gandhi.

His name was Martin Luther King Jr., and he was to become one of the most important men in America in the coming decade.