On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Her subsequent arrest was the spark that ignited the US Civil Rights movement in the US. 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of this inspirational movement against racism and intolerance. Over the coming issues Unity Magazine is going to look at some of the key moments of that movement. We start with the campaign to desegregate America’s education system.
By Weyman Bennett, joint secretary, Unite Against Fascism
US Civil Rights Movement part 1: integrated schools
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine Spring 2015 / issue 11
Imagine living in a society that would not allow black children to attend the same schools as white children? Go back less than 60 years and you discover that this was the reality for all black children living in the Southern states of the US.
It wasn’t just education. In the Southern states there was a series of laws in existence known as “Jim Crow”, which denied blacks the right to vote and to equal treatment. These laws ensured black people couldn’t use the same restaurants, swimming pools, water fountains or train carriages as white people.
The so-called “separate but equal” doctrine lay at the heart of this institutionalised racism. The “separate but equal” doctrine was established by an 1896 case, Plessy v Ferguson, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that separation of races was within the bounds of the Constitution so long as equal accommodation was made for black people.
If all that wasn’t bad enough there were racist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan that lynched black people and attacked their homes. It was like apartheid South Africa.
Our story starts with one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, Charles Houston. Charles Houston was the vice dean of Howard University’s school of Law in Washington DC. It was rare for a black person to reach such a prestigious position in the 1930s. Working for the civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) he toured the South in 1935 filming schools: the buildings, teachers and students. He was recording the disparity between black schools and white schools.
Charles Houston and other activists discovered that South Carolina spent ten times as much on educating each white child as on each black pupil. Other Southern states did little better — Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama devoted five times more money to the education of each white school student than that of each black school student.
Houston knew that it would take more than statistics to convince the nation that segregation was wrong. His films showed the poverty experienced by black students and contrasted the unheated shacks that black children were taught in with the new brick schools white children were taught in. His films and statements played a central role in the NAACP’s legal campaigns.
Houston teamed up with a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall; over the next five years they won a number of legal segregation cases. When Houston stood down as the head of the NAACP’s legal team, Marshall took over its leadership.
From 1946 to 1953, Thurgood and the NAACP won some test cases and lost others. But it was the case of Linda Brown that was going to bring the South’s racist segregated education policies crashing down.
Seven-year-old Linda Brown lived in Topeka, Kansas. Her case rested on the arguments that her education and facilities were of a lower standard than white school students in her town and therefore the Topeka school curriculum could not be equal under segregation. The central legal argument was based on the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. Here is an excerpt:
Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The US Supreme Court decided to hear the case and a number of similar cases. In the case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, it announced its verdict on Monday 17 May 1954. It found: “We conclude, unanimously, that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The Court stated that a quality education was crucial for all children and ruled that it was the state’s responsibility to ensure educational equality.
The Court also noted that segregation had a detrimental effect upon children of colour and that the impact was more profound when it had the sanction of the law. To reach this conclusion, the Court made the unusual decision to rely on social science more than legal precedent.
It was a historic verdict: segregation in the Southern states of America was now illegal. Black and white school students would now share the same schools, and share the same classrooms and facilities on an equal footing with their white counterparts. Despite the legal victory, it still took mass protests and campaigns to desegregate many colleges and schools. It was going to take a further 15 years of heroic and bitter struggles to win black suffrage and to end segregation.