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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Underpinning the discrimination, legally and in common practice, was the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson . A third grader in Topeka, Kansas, named Linda Brown would help bring the ruling to an end.

Linda was African-American who could not go to the white school just seven blocks from her home. She had to walk six blocks to catch a school bus that would take her to a segregated school a mile away. The two elementary schools were a result of an 1879 Kansas law that permitted school districts to maintain separate facilities. In 1951, her father, Oliver L. Brown, a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad, agreed to participate as one of 13 plaintiffs who tried unsuccessfully to enroll their children in white schools.

Brown was chosen as the lead plaintiff before the District Court, which cited Plessy v. Ferguson in ruling for the Board of Education. Although acknowledging that segregated education could be detrimental, the court found that the school district was consistent with the separate but equal standard of the 1896 ruling.

The appeal to the Supreme Court was combined with other similar cases, but the Topeka case was the only one where the separate schools were considered to be basically equal in quality. In December 1952, attorney Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers, argued for the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court. (One of the authors of Marshall's brief, William T. Coleman, Jr., would later serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, 1975-1977, under President Gerald Ford.)

After the hearing, Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson expressed reluctance to the associate justices about desegregating all public schools. However, he died on September 8, 1953, and President Eisenhower appointed Governor Earl Warren of California to be Chief Justice.

Warren, unlike his predecessor, was unwavering about overturning Plessy v. Ferguson . The Supreme Court held additional hearings, concluding them in December 1953, before reaching a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka . Chief Justice Warren announced on May 17, 1954:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

Segregated schools violated the "equal protection" guarantee of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The next day, The New York Times , which had reduced Plessy v. Ferguson to railroad news in 1896, ran a headline that proclaimed: "High Court Bans School Segregation." The Washington Post called the ruling "the most important [opinion] on racial relations since the Supreme Court ruled before the Civil War that Dred Scott, a Negro slave, was not a citizen." The same issue carried Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge's reaction that the ruling had reduced the Constitution to "a mere scrap of paper." It also reported the defiant comment of Senator James O. Eastland (D-Ms.) that the South "will not abide by nor obey this legislative decision by a political court. We will take whatever steps are necessary to retain segregation in education." [Separate and Unequal , p. 306]

Senator Harry Flood Byrd (D-Va.), who as Chairman of the Finance Committee would be a major influence on funding for the Interstate System, was among the Southern politicians vowing to oppose integration of the schools. On February 24, 1955, he declared:

If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.

"Massive resistance" would become the battle cry of Southern politicians attempting to block the march of civil rights advances. Byrd would be among 101 politicians (99 Democrats and 2 Republicans) who would sign the Southern Manifesto in February-March 1956 declaring Brown v. the Board of Education a "clear abuse of judicial power" and promising to use "all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation."(Only three Southern Senators, all Democrats, refused to sign -Lyndon Johnson, and Tennessee's Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr.) [Heinemann, Ronald L., Harry Byrd of Virginia , University of Virginia Press, 1996, 334-335]

Even States such as Texas that agreed to integrate their schools did so slowly. President Eisenhower, who reportedly came to consider his appointment of Chief Justice Warren to be the biggest mistake he had ever made, ordered the integration of schools in the District of Columbia, then still under U.S. control, and directed an immediate end to any remaining segregation in the armed services. He would not urge the Southern States to comply with the ruling, but did urge "extremists on both sides" to remain calm, thereby equating African-Americans seeking their civil rights with segregationists trying to retain "separate but equal" facilities.

Biographer Stephen Ambrose discussed President Eisenhower's attitude:

Although Eisenhower personally wished that the Court had upheld Plessy v. Ferguson , and said so on a number of occasions (but only in private), he was impressed by the 9 to 0 vote and he certainly was going to meet his responsibility and enforce the law. But he would not comment on it in public . . . .

What hurt was not Eisenhower's private disapproval of Brown, but his refusal to give it a public endorsement . . . . Eisenhower insisted time and time again that he had neither need nor right to comment. Even as violence flared across the South, as the implementation of desegregation began, Eisenhower refused to ever say that he thought segregation was morally wrong. That allowed the bitter-end segregationists to claim that Eisenhower was secretly on their side, which they said justified their tactics. Warren, and many others, thought that one word from Eisenhower would have made possible a smoother, easier, and quicker transition period. But Eisenhower never said the word. [Ambrose, Stephen, Eisenhower: The President , A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1984, p. 190-191]

The President would accept the need for Federal intervention only in September 1957, when Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas ordered the National Guard to prevent nine African-Americans who had registered in a white high school in Little Rock from attending classes. Given Governor Faubus' defiance of court orders and the President's direct warning, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to integrate Central High School. The images of the troops escorting the nine students to school amidst jeering white segregationists, broadcast via television news programs across the country, would bring the struggle for civil rights to a broader audience-"a real-life passion play instantaneously being broadcast into millions of homes via the shiny new medium of television," as Packard put it [American Nightmare , p. 257].

Packard summarized the compliance record:

From the emotional heights experienced by black Americans on the day Brown was announced, the journey to justice seemed at first as if it might be short. But such was not to be the case. Though some jurisdictions undertook important measures-however resentfully-toward obedience to the court, the progress made by the states of the old Confederacy for the next decade and more was paltry at best: by 1965, only 6.5 percent of black children living in the South attended school with white children. A great many white Southerners simply didn't see "liberty and equal rights" as having anything at all to do with schooling their children with black children . . . .

The South . . . undertook massive efforts to thwart the Supreme Court's decision, efforts that eventually reached a point of new insurrection with concepts like "state sovereignty," "nullification," and "interposition" expressing Southern resistance to the will of the federal government. [American Nightmare , p. 241]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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