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The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970)

History SparkNotes

Early Legal Victories: 1938–1957

Twentieth-Century Roots: 1900–1950

Early Legal Victories: 1938–1957, page 2

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Events
1938 Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada ruling
1946 Morgan v. Virginia ruling
1950 Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents rulings
1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, ruling
1955 Montgomery bus boycott
1956 Several states issue Southern Manifesto in response to Brown decision
1957 Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) forms Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed by Congress Eisenhower intervenes in Little Rock crisis
Key People
Dwight D. Eisenhower -  34th U.S. president; personally opposed civil rights movement but used military to resolve Little Rock crisis in 1957
Orval Faubus -  Arkansas governor who defied federal court order to integrate public high schools; ordered Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock
Martin Luther King Jr. -  Preacher who gained prominence by leading Montgomery bus boycott in 1955; founded SCLC in 1957 to rally southern churches behind civil rights movement
Thurgood Marshall -  Chief counsel for NAACP; argued Brown v. Board of Education before Supreme Court in 1954
Earl Warren -  Supreme Court chief justice who proved unexpectedly liberal on civil rights; worked hard to deliver unanimous verdict on Brown v. Board of Education
Rosa Parks -  Seamstress who launched era of peaceful protest by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus; her arrest prompted the Montgomery bus boycott later that year

The Legal Strategy

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.

Thurgood Marshall

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.

Brown v. Board of Education

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.

Americans’ Reaction to Brown

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.

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