May 17, 2004
The 50th anniversary this month of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools has been noted in all the news media. As usual, the case – Brown vs Board of Education – is presented as the force that broke down the walls of segregation throughout the nation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Brown vs Board of Education – like a series of lower court rulings – was simply the legal recognition of changes that the mobilization of an angry black population was forcing through.
This movement among the black population had already developed strength by the early 1940s. In 1941, the threat of a March on Washington brought President Roosevelt to create the FEPC (Fair Employment Practices Commission) and issue orders outlawing racial discrimination in war industries. During World War II, resistance to being drafted to fight a "white man's war" – organized by the Black Muslims – and protests within the military against segregated facilities and racist treatment, led to the U.S. War Department banning segregated recreational and transport facilities for troops in 1944.
After large numbers of black troops returned from the war, anger at their treatment at home welled up in a wide range of places. The Black Muslims, whose growth reflected increased anger in the big cities of the North, began to spread beyond Chicago and Detroit. With protests growing around the country against segregated facilities, the Supreme Court issued the first of many rulings declaring that segregation of tax-funded public facilities was illegal. In 1947 the first Freedom Rides were organized by CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality).
In 1948, a movement of black youths against being drafted into the still-segregated military forces of the U.S., combined with agitation among black troops, brought President Truman to issue an order for the desegregation of all U.S. military forces. In 1949, CORE began sit-ins at public facilities in St. Louis, which continued for four years until city officials conceded. A protest against voting restrictions forced the extension of the right to vote in states that bordered the South.
In 1953, CORE began sit-ins in Baltimore. Within the next year, legal segregation in the schools was ended in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The sit-in movement spread to other Northern cities. Dozens of black soldiers refused to sit in the back of a bus in Columbia, South Carolina. A boycott of the bus system in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began and the UDL (United Defense League) was organized to protect black people from racist violence there. Other self-defense groups sprung up in some Southern cities. By the end of the year, black troops who had served in U.S. combat units in Korea were beginning to return home, taking a bigger role in protests throughout the South.
In May of 1954, the Supreme Court issued Brown vs the Board of Education declaring that so-called "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional.
Only a few of the events leading up to this decision are described here, but they show that this legal decision, like others both before and after it, came as the result of a growing movement among black people against the racism of this society. These court decisions, and laws that followed, were an admission of how much the mobilization of the black population was beginning to shake the repressive state apparatus in the whole country.
These decisions and laws were made by both Democrats and Republicans. The Supreme Court in 1954 – with a majority of Democrats – was led by Earl Warren, a conservative Republican from California, who had distinguished himself during World War II by his racist decisions against Japanese Americans.
The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, covering Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, had a four to one Republican majority when it was at the center of the storm during the 1950s and '60s. It issued most of the important decisions throwing out laws enforcing racial discrimination, which were then upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court..
Just as both Democrats and Republicans can attack the population during periods when there is NO mobilization, they both can be forced to cede to demands in the midst of a popular mobilization.