It’s The Anniversary Of Brown v. Board of Education: A Decision That Altered The Course Of History

The Warren Court

The Nine Justices Of The Warren Court Unanimously Decided In Favor Of Equal Rights On May 17th, 1954.

Sixty years ago today the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. What was America like in those days?

Donald Sterling would have sounded mainstream.

At the heart of the case was Linda Brown, an eight-year-old Negro. (You were lucky then to be called a “Negro.” In 1954 the “N word” was still usually “nigger.”) What was the question before the court? Could Miss Brown attend school with white children?

Racism was as American as apple pie.

Most Americans forget now. This case was brought against the school board of Topeka, Kansas. This wasn’t about the virulent racism of the Deep South. This was the more habitual kind, as American as apple pie in that era.

Linda Brown was too young to understand how the 9-0 decision of the high court would change the nation.

But it wouldn’t be easy. Four years earlier the University of Oklahoma lost a long-drawn legal battle. The school was ordered to admit G. W. McLaurin to its graduate program. McLaurin was a Negro. So university officials had to be creative. McLaurin was allowed to enroll but still segregated in classrooms, lunchroom and library.

“RESERVED FOR COLORED” signs helped him decide where to sit.

How bad was it in those days? Many doors to employment were barred to Negro workers. In 1950 they earned 52¢ for every $1 white workers made.

Strom Thurmond elected to the U. S. Senate.

How bad? South Carolina voters sent Strom Thurmond to the U. S. Senate in 1954. Segregation was the foundation of his career. Thurmond once assured an audience:

“I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

For some reason he failed to mention that Negroes had already “invaded” his bedroom. Three decades earlier, Thurmond had fathered a child by the black maid in his family.

Housing discrimination was then commonly accepted. From Los Angeles to Levittown, New York home buyers routinely signed racial covenants. This was a promise never to rent or sell to Negroes.

Fred Morrow was a special assistant in the White House under President Eisenhower. As a Negro, he had trouble finding an apartment in Washington. One landlord agreed to rent to Morrow. But he must agree never to linger in the main lobby. And would he mind riding the freight elevator?

Morrow passed on the offer.

Drop the checkers and come out with your hands up!

Racists defended the “color line” with real fervor. You could never be too careful about this “race-mixing” idea. So: blood banks stored white and black and blood separately. The University of Kentucky was a basketball powerhouse in the 50s. But the school wanted no part of minority players. Big Blue teams remained lily-white for another decade.

How bad? Alabama outlawed interracial checker playing in public. How bad? How ridiculously bad?

In Richmond, Virginia a high school tennis player named Arthur Ashe was unable to schedule matches against white opponents. When a judge ordered integration of city parks Ashe showed up ready to play. Park officials turned him away. Then, to ensure good order, they cut down the nets to put an end to this foolishness.

Even Southern libraries were segregated. One Negro was arrested—for disorderly reading, possibly. Entering a segregated library he had the nerve to ask to check out a biography of Robert E. Lee.

How bad? There were no Negro head coaches in the NFL. And, of course, there were no Negro quarterbacks. Most whites, even rabid football fans, assumed blacks weren’t smart enough to be leaders. The Washington Redskins (o, irony!) were the last NFL team to integrate.  George Marshall, the team owner, held out eight years longer.

No major U. S. city had ever elected a black mayor in those days. No black had ever served on the U. S. Supreme Court. (Today we’re stuck with Clarence Thomas.)

Thomas was five years old in 1954. His marriage to a white woman years later would have been illegal in Georgia at the time. A number of states, including Virginia, banned interracial marriage. Alabama banned it between a white and anyone with Negro blood down to the third generation.

Southern states worked avidly to block Negro voting.

Many states avidly suppressed Negro voting. The poll tax was still legal. (At Fox News they refer to this era fondly as “The Good Old Days.”) Literacy test were enforced selectively. Negroes never passed. If Negroes insisted on registering and voting gunfire and bombings often followed.

It wasn’t just bad. It was terrible. Panola County, Mississippi had one Negro registered in 1954. This: out of 7,250 old enough to be eligible. (At least sixteen majority-black counties in the South had no registered Negro voters.)

With almost no black voters there were almost no black jurors. The first great trial of the civil rights era revolved around the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Till, only 14, had come South from Chicago to visit relatives. Unfortunately, the young man made the mistake of whistling at a white Mississippi woman.

He was grabbed by two white men, beaten savagely, and shot in the head. His mangled remains ended up in the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till murder trial.

How bad was it for Negroes? Sickeningly bad. Sheriff Clarence Strider was in charge of the “investigation.” Strider’s sentiments in the matter could not have been clearer. He was furious when Northern reporters—including Negroes—showed up to cover the trial. “There ain’t going to be no niggers in my courthouse,” he told listeners. (Courtrooms in Mississippi and all across the South still had separate seating areas for “Whites” and “Coloreds.”)

Was a fair trial possible? The prosecutor insisted that the two suspects in the case had simply gone too far. “The most [Till] needed was a whipping if he and done anything wrong,” he explained to the all-white jury. The defense lawyer was blunt about the key legal issue to be decided. “Your ancestors will turn over in their graves if [these defendants] are found guilty,” he warned jurors. “And I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [Northern] pressure.”

The jury quickly returned a “not guilty” verdict. It took sixty-seven minutes, including time for a pop break.

The iron feet of oppression.

In Montgomery, Alabama blacks were still sitting in the back of the bus, as the law required. If the “Whites Only” section filled the driver could order black passengers to give up their seats. If the “Colored” section filled and seats in the “White” section remained Negroes could not fill them. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress, was arrested. After a long day at work she refused to relinquish her seat.

Martin Luther King Jr. soon decided to help organize a bus boycott. His father begged him not to get involved. The whites would kill him. “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion,” he argued. When Martin Jr. could not be dissuaded the elder King wept. At a mass meeting a few days later, 26-year-old King delivered the first great speech of his career. The church where he spoke was packed to overflowing with listeners. “As you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he told them, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

The battle for equality was about to begin.