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Supreme Court Decision 1954



    The end of the Civil War marked the close of one era in the history of the United States and the beginning of another__one which would be racked by conflict between the president and Congress and between freedmen and their former slave-masters, but one in which blacks would assume unprecedented political power and the nation would begin thrusting toward a position of great power, of extraordinary wealth.

Reaction and Renewal

  The post-reconstruction years and the activities of blacks during the time have been somewhat neglected by historians.  Thus many have the impression that disaffection with Republicanism, disappointment at the loss of political power and harsh treatment by white Democrats made blacks lapse into passivity after the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes.  The fact is that this was one of the most active periods in black history.


"Some are coming on the passenger, 

Some are coming on the freight,

Others will be found walking,

For none will have time to wait."    


This poem was one that black men, women, and children remembered and recited all through the South during the first decades of the new century. White Southerners were infuriated by black schoolboys chanting the words sing-song fashion, and sheriffs arrested black men caught with copies of the Chicago Defender in which the poem appeared.  “Inciting to riot” was the usual charge, and the penalty was a term at a prison farm.  But nothing could stop what would become a legend:  The Great Northern Drive__the departure from the South of blacks by the tens of thousands, all heading to the Defender’s Chicago and to Cleveland, St. Louis, Indianapolis, New York…anywhere across the Mason-Dixon line.

World War I

    Black Americans, their horizons structured by the tremendous problems facing them in the United States, cared little about what was going on in the rest of the world as the second decade of the twentieth century began.  While there was a stirring interest in Africa, brought on mainly by the activities and writings of such men as Henry McNeal Turner and W.E.B. DU Bois and the preaching of Marcus Garvey, who started his back-to-Africa movement in the West Indies in 1914, the masses of blacks thought in terms of “up North” and “down South.”  Schools for blacks in the South were few and poorly staffed and those in the North were not much better.  It is little wonder that blacks had little concern for the power struggle which had been brewing in Europe and which was soon to explode into World War I, a conflict that was to involve them more than any previous war.


    In July 1918, in what he later called “one of my periods of exaltation,” editor W.E.B. Du Boise published his famed editorial, “Close Ranks.”  In the pages of The Crisis, official voice of the NAACP, he said, in part, “That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy.  Let us not hesitate.  Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.  We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.”


World War II

     The mood of the black man of the early forties was bitter and brooding.  He had fought bravely for America in World War I, only to return home to find that the democracy he had defended did not exist for him.  He had thought of going back to Africa with Garvey, he had joined in A. Philip Randolph’s fight for the black man’s rights in labor, and he had lived through an impressive black cultured renaissance that had given him a new sense of identity.
     Morever, he had been severely victimized by the Depression of the thirties, and he had suffered an increase in lynchings, beatings, jailings, and other forms of violence.  Both North and South America were still largely segregated and economically the black man defined himself as the “last hired, first fired.”  It was not surprising, then, that when war efforts were stepped up in the early forties, blacks broke into protest at all levels…


    In the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education of 1954 , it reversed the Plessy decision of 1896.  Brown’s case involved a Kansas statute requiring segregated classrooms in both elementary and high schools.  “Slavery is perpetuated in these statutes,” Thurgood Marshall insisted and the court ruled in his favor.  The court said: “We cannot turn the clock back to 1896 when Plessy vs. Ferguson was written.  We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation…. We conclude that in the field of publication, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”  This decision would set the state for the most massive assault on segregated schooling in the history of America.
     A unanimous court decision, in 1955, ordered desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”  Voluntary integration took place in several Border States but the Deep South resisted.
Ku Klux Klan membership rose and White Citizens councils were formed.  Racial violence increased, and in one year there were 530 killings, bombings, and beatings.  Black teachers affiliated with the NAACP were fired or threatened, and tensions in the South reached a fever pitch.

    It was against this background, and in a climate of deepening crisis, that black America moved from the portentous post-war years to a new era of unprecedented public protest...

A_Reaction and Renewal
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