The NAACP’s primary goal upon its founding in 1909 was to tackle racial inequality by means of legal action, hoping to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the organization’s earliest victories came in 1938, when the Supreme Court ruled in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada that the University of Missouri had to build an entirely new law school for blacks or simply integrate them into the existing all-white school.
In 1946, the Supreme Court further chipped away at the “separate but equal” doctrine when it ruled in Morgan v. Virginia that segregated interstate buses were illegal because they put an “undue burden” on interstate trade and transportation. In 1950, the court expanded on the Missouri decision when it ruled in Sweatt v. Painter that “separate but equal” professional schools were inherently unequal.
One of the main figures in the NAACP during this period of legal action was its chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall. A brilliant lawyer, Marshall won a major victory in 1950 with the McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents ruling, when he convinced the Supreme Court that segregated cafeterias, libraries, and seats in classrooms placed a “badge of inferiority” on black students. After winning several landmark victories, Marshall himself would go on to become the first black justice on the Supreme Court, in 1967.
The early string of decisive legal victories for civil rights activists laid the foundation for Marshall and the NAACP to launch a head-on attack on the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In 1951, they accepted the case of Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas, who wanted his daughter to be able to attend an all-white elementary school near his house rather than a black school several miles away. The case— Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas —eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court, where Marshall argued that racial segregation relegated black Americans to second-class citizenship. Chief Justice Earl Warren, though appointed by the conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower, sympathized with black Americans and pressured the wavering justices on the bench to vote in Brown’s favor. Warren knew that only a unanimous decision would be powerful enough to quiet racists and truly overturn Plessy v. Ferguson.
After the final two justices had been persuaded to make the groundbreaking, unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, Warren announced that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” A subsequent ruling a year later ordered local school boards to desegregate schools but set no specific timetable for doing so. Unfortunately, the second decision placed federal district judges in charge of supervising the desegregation process, effectively ensuring noncompliance and opposition in the South. Still, Brown v. Board of Education was the landmark legal victory the NAACP had been striving for since its formation nearly a half century earlier. The decision revitalized the Fourteenth Amendment and paved the way for future civil rights legislation.
Many Americans—in both the North and the South—disagreed with the Brown decision and accused Warren of having bent the Constitution in favor of his personal opinions. On the other hand, and despite intense opposition, many Americans defended Warren’s decision by arguing that he had rightly used his authority to make up for Congress’s failure to protect black civil rights.
Critics of the ruling included President Eisenhower himself, who privately regretted his decision to appoint Warren to the bench. After the Brown decision, Eisenhower refused to support the ruling actively and therefore offered no public comment about it at all.
Southern politicians vehemently opposed the Brown decision. State legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia passed resolutions asserting their right to nullify federal laws they disliked. More than a hundred southern congressmen and senators even signed a “Declaration of Constitutional Principles,” also known as the Southern Manifesto, in 1956, protesting the Brown decision and pressuring their home states to ignore the ruling or reject it entirely.
Eisenhower’s lack of support for the civil rights movement convinced many blacks that they could not rely on the federal government to right racial wrongs. Rather, many came to believe that change would have to originate within the black community itself. The first landmark change came on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Black seamstress Rosa Parks, sitting in the “colored” section of a city bus, refused to give up her seat to a white man who was looking for a seat because the “white” section was full. Parks was subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct.
Parks’s arrest outraged the black community and prompted its local leaders, including young Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr., to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, refusing to ride any city buses and crippling the bus company financially. The boycott continued for more than a year, ending when the Supreme Court issued a ruling in December 1956 declaring segregated bus seating unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, King, in taking charge of the boycott, became a major figurehead in the blossoming civil rights movement. Even though he himself came from a prosperous family, he detested racial inequality and sympathized with downtrodden southern blacks. King’s education, position within the Baptist church, and unmatched oratory skills made him an inspiring leader as the movement grew.
After the success of the bus boycott, King hoped to rally more southern churches behind the civil rights cause. In 1957, King joined with nearly 100 other black ministers in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Whereas the NAACP attacked segregation via the law, King intended to use various forms of nonviolent protest to provoke segregationists and win support from the moderate majority of southern whites. He drew much of his inspiration from the nonviolent tactics of Mohandas Gandhi, who had used nonviolence to protest against British colonial rule in India. The formation of the SCLC also marked the shift within the civil rights movement from predominantly northern leadership to southern activism. Although the SCLC did convince more southern blacks to support the civil rights movement, the organization failed to spark controversy or elicit sympathy from whites.
Meanwhile, northern political leaders pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress, even in the wake of the events in Montgomery and encountering extreme opposition to Brown v. Board of Education. Eisenhower signed the bill, but only after promising southern conservatives that the bill would have little real impact on their daily lives. Although the new bill established a Civil Rights Commission in an attempt to protect black voting rights, the commission made little significant difference in the lives of black southerners. Still, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first major civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction, and its passage was symbolic because it signified the growing importance of the civil rights movement at the federal level.
Facing a tough reelection campaign in 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus capitalized on the Brown controversy by defying the federal court order to desegregate public schools. Faubus positioned Arkansas National Guardsmen outside Central High School in Little Rock to prevent nine black students from entering. He then organized an angry white mob outside the school to protest integration and attack black reporters.
Although Eisenhower himself opposed integration, Faubus’s decision to challenge federal authority forced the president to intervene on behalf of the students and end the Little Rock crisis. Eisenhower placed the National Guard under federal authority and sent 1,000 U.S. Army troops to disband the mob and escort the students to class. Still defiant, Faubus closed all public schools in the city for the remainder of the year to prevent “disorder.”