The Road to Brown and Little Rock: Beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States

What was the state of segregation in the Southern state of America in the 1950s? Texas did not allow interracial boxing matches. Florida did not allow black and white students to use the same textbooks. In Alabama a white woman could not care for a black male patient. North Carolina required separate washrooms in factories, and South Carolina in cotton mills. In six states white and black prisoners could not be chained together. Seven states enforced complete public segregation. Fourteen states segregated railroad passengers within state borders. Seventeen states had school segregation. These vignettes into the social and political landscape of the American South reveal a thorough segregation of citizen operations. This article will trace the tumultuous journey for African Americans which led to Brown v The Board of Education in 1954 and the Little Rock Nine crisis of 1957.

Systemic segregation and events underscored the legal affairs and organisation on the ground for African American communities. This was a period of intensity and profound change, producing incredible instability on a variety of levels, locally and nationally, for blacks, whites, liberals, and conservatives.

Under Roosevelt in 1941, the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) was established to prevent discrimination of African Americans in government and defence jobs. As a result, during the 1940s there were a series of high-profile hearings but a lack of material gain, with African Americans remaining powerless, except for the embarrassment of companies with continued segregation policies. Symbolically, it reorientated African Americans away from white patronage and towards the federal government in the complicated pursuit of increased equality and improved livelihoods.

With the United States’ entrance into World War II in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, African Americans enlisted in large numbers to join the military. The reality facing them was that of segregated training facilities and an onslaught of discrimination. Overseas however, African Americans experienced positive treatment from foreign soldiers, only to be confronted with scandalous treatment upon their return home. This fuelled what became known as the ‘Double V’ campaign: defeating both fascism abroad and discrimination at home.

Between 1941 and 1946, A. Philip Randolph organised the March on Washington Movement in pursuit of greater economic opportunities and rights for African Americans. Randolph expressed concern over the infiltration of the Negro Congress by the white community of America. In response, the movement came to embody an all-black organisation, while simultaneously ensuring it was not considered black nationalist by upholding American patriotism and demanding the transformation of American democracy and freedom: national principles which were manipulated and ignored in regard to African Americans. The movement engaged in mass non-violent protest action, sit-down strikes, and symbolic acts of resistance across America, becoming a large umbrella organisation composed of a variety of constituents.

In 1942, a different mobilising agenda emerged through the interracial and civilised organisation: the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This was an offshoot of the Pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation led by James Farmer and Bayard Rustin. These two groups shared the strategic logic of non-violent educational direct action during the 1940s. CORE was interracial while the March on Washington Movement was all-black. The latter built its base on the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car and Porters and Madi Union, attempting to reach out to working class blacks. In contrast, CORE was elitist and aimed at those African Americans who were well-educated, adopting the approach of test, negotiate, confer and sit-in. Critically, this demonstrates two different organising logics with the same strategic mode of engagement. This has led some scholars to contest the periodisation of the civil rights movement, traditionally perceived as taking place between 1954 and 1968, to include the precursory actions of the 1930s and 1940s in direct lineage.

In the 1940s, America was in a state of transition and war. With large-scale migration as a product of defence industry jobs, the African American demographic shifted from a 60% rural population at the beginning of the conflict, to 55% urban by its conclusion. Crisis ensued, with increased pressure for housing, alongside cultural and political battlefields. In 1943, race riots erupted in 47 cities across the nation, in particular the Zoot Suit Riots involved Mexican residents and white Navy members in Los Angeles. In Detroit, ten days before a March on Washington Convention in Chicago, violence erupted with rioting colouring the planned event. As a result, the narrative of Militant race leadership, seen as too provocative and un-American, emerged. American citizens could no longer deny the fact that African Americans were beginning to get jobs in these factories due to employment desperation. Political agitation developed within a narrow frame of operation. By the mid-1940s, for example, membership to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) skyrocketed, which was recognised as more reasonable and moderate than CORE, having originally been positioned on the edge of the avant-garde during the first two decades of its founding.

Following the legal case of Smith v. Allwright in 1944, the white-only election primary was outlawed. In response, liberal groups attempted to introduce alternative means of exclusion towards African Americans in order to ensure the white-only voting power remained intact. For instance, in Mississippi, of the 350,00 African American population eligible to vote, only 25,000 voted in 1946. The country was under incredible stress, as the Black vote was being eliminated through registrar restriction strategies: people had to act to expand the right to vote and access to the ballot box.

With Truman’s election as President in 1946, the importance of the Black vote for Roosevelt’s 1944 victory became evident. Reacting to the threat of a Democratic split and disgruntlement towards the federal government, Congress removed the FEPC, while still needing the Black vote to remain in power. In response, Truman created the President’s Commission on Civil Rights that would over time recommend more adequate means and procedures for the protection of civil rights. This resulted in the October 1947 publication of a document outlining how to secure these rights, equal opportunity, housing and jobs, anti-lynching and poll tax laws: going beyond what was previously imagined. From February 1948, Truman implemented these recommendations through executive order. As a result, African Americans were brought into high positions of the administration, legal and federal roles of power. This was extended on July 26 1948, with full military service integration and abolition of segregation, however, this change took a considerable amount of time to truly see fruition.

The real challenge came from the politically right caucus of the Democratic Party. With opposition to the civil rights platform for the forthcoming convention in 1948, conservative Southern state Democrats left the Party and formed the Dixiecrat Party. This splitting resulted in a narrow victory for Truman, which was mainly due to the large support from the Black population in America. This was the vantage point of high politics on race relations within the United States during the 1940s.

Meanwhile, there was a shift taking place in the legal arena of the 1940s. The battle began at Howard University Law School, a historically black university, when Charles Houston was brought in to lead the school and improve its status, resulting in the emergence of civil rights attorneys. He also served as a mentor to Thurgood Marshall –who would later become the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court from 1967-1999 – and recruited him into the NAACP. There began a campaign of lawsuits for Black students and teachers across the country to achieve equality and integration. In 1938, following the Gaines v. Canada case at the University of Missouri Law School, which had previously not admitted any African American students, the Supreme Court ruled that all states had to provide educational facilities for black students. In the same year, the attempts of Southern states to export black legal talent to Northern educational institutions was prevented by the Supreme Court. By 1946, the problem was intensifying. Houston and Marshall took on the case of Ada Sipuel Fisher, who had been denied admission to the University of Oklahoma Law School due to her race. In 1948, the Supreme Court declared that equal opportunities had to be provided. Consequently, Oklahoma developed a separate law school, but this establishment was deemed inferior by federal authorities. In 1949, Sipuel was finally admitted, becoming the first black woman to attend an all-white law school in the South. However, she remained segregated while on campus. At this time,
resistance was not in the classroom, instead taking place at the institutional and governmental levels within the United States.

The future battlefield of secondary and primary schools became ever more apparent towards the end of the 1940s and moving into the 1950s. Southern states were beginning to feverishly start improving the quality of black schools through high levels of investment. These efforts, however, proved futile, challenging the very principle that segregation in education along racial lines was unconstitutional. Five cases rose to the Supreme Court level simultaneously and were collected together under Brown v. Board of Education. The Attorney General called for an end to segregation, however the justification for this is revealing. The focus was placed upon the international image of the United States as the beacon of democracy during the Cold War as opposed to the domestic pursuit of educational equality for its citizens.

In May 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education ruled unanimously that segregation was inherently unequal and actively institutionalised. However, the history of the lead prosecuting attorney, Warren, and civil liberties was murky. In 1942, as attorney General of California, he led the campaign to deter Japanese immigrants – one of the great civil rights injustices in the climate of war. Nonetheless, this was a watershed moment, closing the door on the constitutionality of separate but equal articulated by Plessy v Ferguson, thus proving to be both socially and politically transformative.

The question remained, however: how was segregation going to change? This was soon to be answered, with the distribution of power to local districts, creating local and federal conflicts. For example, South Carolina and Georgia threatened the closure of all public schools in response to the Brown ruling, while the edict of ‘deliberate speed’ became a contentious point of interpretation for state authorities in the South. Therefore, the desegregation of schools was a process of temporal and spatial variation across the United States.

Little Rock Nine and the desegregation of Central High School became a flashpoint in, and catalyst of, further civil rights struggles in America for the decades to come. Selected by NAACP activists to integrate Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, the Little Rock Nine were met with fierce local resistance. The governor, Orval Faubus, mobilised the Arkansas National Guard to prevent it while President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Air Division, a decision justified by the understanding that the federal government held the right to assert power, rather than a belief in the principal of integration. Widespread violence within the community erupted. NAACP activists ensured the children remained in school despite the violence, bringing into question the appropriateness of such a survival strategy conducted by adults through children, which later became highly pertinent during the Birmingham crisis of 1963. The closure of Central High School in 1958 became a triumphant moment for the civil rights movement and the collective courage of Black Americans in their pursuit of equality.

Written by Jack Bennett


Dudziak, Mary L. “Brown as a Cold War Case.” The Journal of American History 91, No. 1 (2004): 32-42.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Lawson, Steven F. “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement.” The American Historical Review 96, No. 2 (1991): 456-471.

McGuire, Danielle L.; Dittmer, John. Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2011.

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