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BHM 2017: Day 9 – Atrocities in Alabama

When I first began to notice how much of the activities in the civil rights movement focus on Alabama, I thought I’d devote a day to it. And then when I started reading up on it, I thought I’d give it three days. But I’ll stick to one, so be ready. This is LONG. Read it in spurts. Come back to it, read some more. And be prepared to be overwhelmed by a sense of pride in what was accomplished in Alabama.

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Four major Civil Rights battles were fought in Alabama.

In 1955-56, the black citizens of Montgomery fought to integrate the buses. Retaliation included the bombing of King’s home in January 1956.

In 1961, the Freedom Riders were bombed and beaten in Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, and finally arrested in Jackson.

In the spring of 1963, the effort to desegregate Birmingham was launched. Retaliation included the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (in which 4 children were killed).

In 1965, three protest marches were carried out from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery to protest for voting rights.

I think I’ve covered the Freedom Riders. So let me talk a bit about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In early 1955, 15 year old Claudette Colvin, a member of the NAACP Youth Council, refused to give up her seat on a bus. The way it worked was, 10 back rows for black, 10 front rows for white, 16 middle rows for extra and the two didn’t mix. Once the white rows were full, the whites filled each middle row going back, and the blacks stood. Claudette was in one of the early middle rows. When she refused to get up, she was  arrested… but the NAACP decided not to showcase her because she was unmarried and pregnant. Instead, they trained Rosa Parks in civil disobedience and let her be the champion. Parks, the secretary of the chapter, let herself get arrested in November. ED Dixon, president of the NAACP chapter, bailed her out, but the Women’s Political Council decided to organize a one-day boycott. The flyer they distributed said:

Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday

 

Thirty-thousand African Americans boycotted the buses on December 5th. That afternoon Martin Luther King, Jr. was called in by Ralph Abernathy to form the Montgomery Improvement Association, and the black citizens of Montgomery decided to continue the boycott. Organizers met with the mayor explaining that the boycott would continue until the bus company hired black drivers for routes through black neighborhoods and instructed white drivers to treat black passengers with courtesy and professionalism. At that point, they weren’t trying to integrate the buses, just make the seating arrangements fair with a fixed dividing line for the segregated sections of the buses. Such a line would have meant that if the white section of the bus was oversubscribed, whites would have to stand; blacks would not be forced to give up their seats to whites. The mayor rejected the terms. So the boycott got serious, and a lawyer named Fred Gray took up Claudette Colvin’s case and sued for integration of the buses.

Several hundred drivers coordinated a carpool system to get black workers to and from their jobs. Some white housewives also drove their black domestic servants to work. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyd’s of London, a company which once insured slave cargo ships.And in retaliation, King’s home was bombed, Dixon’s home was bombed, and Ralph Abernathy’s home was bombed. The boycott continued. For 381 days. The support was nationwide. Shoes wore out and churches took up collections for new shoes. Black taxis charged 10 cents, same as bus fare. When they were arrested for charging less than 45 cents, money was raised to bail them out. People walked, rode bicycles, rode mules, and hitchhiked. Eighty-nine boycott leaders, including King, were arrested. It just increased the national attention.

In November 1956, the Supreme Court upheld Claudette Colvin’s case – Browder v. Gayle, to desegregate city buses, and the buses integrated in December, ending the boycott. Score one for King, score one for Civil Rights, score one for African-Americans in Alabama.

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The effort to desegregate Birmingham actually started in 1956. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth worked diligently to integrate his city, starting the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) when the NAACP was banned from Alabama, and giving respite to the Freedom Riders in 1961.Birmingham, Alabama was, in 1963, “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” according to King. Although the city’s population was 60% white and 40% black, Birmingham had no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks in department stores, bus drivers, bank tellers, or store cashiers. Black secretaries could not work for white professionals. Jobs available to blacks were limited to manual labor in Birmingham’s steel mills, work in household service and yard maintenance, or work in black neighborhoods. Racial segregation of public and commercial facilities throughout Jefferson County was legally required, covered all aspects of life, and was rigidly enforced. Only 10 percent of the city’s black population was registered to vote in 1960. Fifty unsolved racially motivated bombings between 1945 and 1962 had earned the city the nickname “Bombingham”.

In 1962, Shuttlesworth secured a promise from white civic leaders to desegregate downtown water fountains and restrooms. . When the white leaders reneged on the agreement a few months later, Shuttlesworth appealed to King for help. King and the SCLC organized an elaborate plan to desegregate Birmingham with sit-ins, marches and boycotts of downtown stores: “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”.

Oddly enough, it may not have worked if it weren’t for the intense hatred and violence with which the white citizens responded to the King’s tactics, and in particular, the hostility of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Connor, who even said that we “ain’t gonna segregate no niggers and whites together in this town”. Protest actions in Birmingham began in 1962, when students from local colleges arranged for a year of staggered boycotts. They caused downtown business to decline by as much as 40 percent; the City punished the black community by withdrawing $45,000 ($360,000 in 2017) from a surplus-food program. Economic pressure on white business continued. In the spring of 1963, before Easter, the SCLC and Shuttlesworth initiated Project C, with a series of sit-ns, boycotts and marches designed to put Birmingham’s and Connor’s ugliness in the national spotlight. For example, a Birmingham boycott intensified during the second-busiest shopping season of the year. Pastors urged their congregations to avoid shopping in Birmingham stores in the downtown district. For six weeks supporters of the boycott patrolled the downtown area to make sure blacks were not patronizing stores that promoted or tolerated segregation. King was arrested on Good Friday, and wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he chastised white clergy for not getting involved in the freedom struggle.  But the response from the white citizens was not controversial enough to draw national attention, nor were there enough arrests to crowd the jails. When the stores tried to integrate in response to the boycotts, Connor threatened to take their business licenses.

When enthusiasm for the efforts began to wane, a new plan was formed – D-Day, also known as the Children’s Crusade. D-Day called for students from colleges, high schools and even elementary schools to take part in demonstrations throughout the city. Actually, a lot of people were horrified at the risk involved, and even King was hesitant. But the plan went ahead anyway, and the students were trained in non-violence tactics, teaching them to overcome their fears of dogs and jails, and showing them the success of sit-ins in Nashville. On May 2nd over 1000 students skipped school for the demonstrations. Demonstrators were given instructions to march to the downtown area, to meet with the Mayor, and integrate the chosen buildings. They were to leave in smaller groups and continue on their courses until arrested. More than 600 students were arrested; the youngest of these was reported to be eight years old, and the jail held 1200 protesters, with a 900-man capacity. The demonstrations continued the next day with another 1000+ students, and Connor brought out the hoses, set at a level that would peel bark off a tree or separate bricks from mortar, to be turned on the children. Boys’ shirts were ripped off, and young women were pushed over the tops of cars by the force of the water. When the students crouched or fell, the blasts of water rolled them down the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks. The protest ended at 3pm. And the damage was done. Northern reporters photographed it, and it made Life magazine. Television cameras broadcast to the nation the scenes of fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and police dogs attacking unprotected demonstrators. A New York Times editorial called the behavior of the Birmingham police “a national disgrace.” The Washington Post editorialized, “The spectacle in Birmingham … must excite the sympathy of the rest of the country for the decent, just, and reasonable citizens of the community, who have so recently demonstrated at the polls their lack of support for the very policies that have produced the Birmingham riots. The authorities who tried, by these brutal means, to stop the freedom marchers do not speak or act in the name of the enlightened people of the city.” But it didn’t end there. The jail count swelled to 2500, and news went worldwide. News of the mass arrests of children had reached Western Europe; the Soviet Union devoted up to 25 percent of its news broadcast to the demonstrations, sending much of it to Africa, where Soviet and U.S. interests clashed. Soviet news commentary accused the Kennedy administration of neglect and “inactivity”.

Meanwhile, the protests continued. Protesters shut down businesses in the town, set off false fire alarms, picketed and sat in stores singing freedom songs. All totaled, there were 3000 protestors in downtown Birmingham.

On May 8 at 4 a.m., white business leaders agreed to most of the protesters’ demands. Political leaders held fast, however. The rift between the businessmen and the politicians became clear when business leaders admitted they could not guarantee the protesters’ release from jail. On May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr. told reporters that they had an agreement from the City of Birmingham to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms within 90 days, and to hire blacks in stores as salesmen and clerks. Those in jail would be released on bond or their own recognizance.

And then there’s Selma.

In the 1960’s, a group called the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) launched a voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, joined by organizers from SNCC. Alabama had both a poll tax and a literacy test to keep blacks, and some poor whites from registering to vote. Selma was 57% black with 15,000 eligible voters, but only 130 were registered. The literacy test was administered subjectively, and even most educated blacks couldn’t pass it. Other tactics included restricted registration hours; economic pressure, including threatening people’s jobs, firing them, evicting people from leased homes, and economic boycotts of black-owned businesses; and violence against blacks who tried to register.

The DCLV and SNCC even held a special Freedom Day on October 7th, 1963, on one of the two days of the month that residents could register to vote. SNCC members who tried to bring water to the blacks waiting on line were arrested, as were those who held signs saying “Register to Vote.” After waiting all day in the hot sun, only a handful of the hundreds in the line were allowed to fill out the voter application, and most of those applications were denied by white county officials. United States Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents were present and observing the scene, but took no action against local officials. On July 6, 1964, one of the two registration days that month, John Lewis led 50 black citizens to the courthouse, but the county sheriff arrested them all rather than allowing them to apply to vote. Three days later an injunction was passed forbidding any gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights organizations or leaders. This injunction made it illegal for more than two people at a time to talk about civil rights or voter registration in Selma, suppressing public civil rights activity there for the next six months.

When resistance from white officials proved overwhelming, King and the SCLC were called in to help in 1965. Local protests resulted in 3000 arrests by the beginning of February as organized efforts were made toward voter registration. Up to this point, the overwhelming majority of registrants and marchers were sharecroppers, blue-collar workers and students. On January 22, the DCVL president, finally convinced his colleagues to join the campaign and register en masse. When they refused Sheriff Clark’s orders to disperse at the courthouse, an ugly scene commenced. Clark’s posse beat the teachers away from the door, but they rushed back only to be beaten again. The teachers retreated after three attempts. On February 1st, King was arrested, this time for refusing to cooperate with traffic directions, and Malcolm X responded, stating: if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm…you and your KKK friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who … believe in asserting our right to self-defense – by any means necessary.” And yet, only 100 African-Americans were successfully registered.

The idea of the march was in response to the shooting death of activist/deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson who was killed by a state trooper at the end of February, during a protest march in Marion. The SCLC decided that the march would run 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, specifically to ask Governor George Wallace if he had ordered the conditions that led to Jackson’s death, and if he would protect black registrants. Governor Wallace denounced the march as a threat to public safety; he said that he would take all measures necessary to prevent it from happening. “There will be no march between Selma and Montgomery,” Wallace said on March 6, 1965, citing concern over traffic violations. He ordered Alabama Highway Patrol Chief Col. Al Lingo to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march”. On March 7, 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed southeast out of Selma on US Highway 80. The protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge and entered Dallas County, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and county posse waiting for them on the other side.  The demonstrators were told to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback. Televised images of “Bloody Sunday”, the brutal attack presented Americans and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.

A second march was then planed for Tuesday, March 9, 1965. They issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join them. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of Civil Rights Movement activities, and shocked by the television images of “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of people responded to SCLC’s call. But there was an injunction against the march, so King cut a deal and agreed to turn around on the bridge and not enter the county, in return for a promise of no violence. This decision created a major rift between King with the SCLC and the students of SNCC who no longer trusted him. SNCC led their own demonstrations in Montgomery with hundreds of demonstrators including Alabama students, Northern students, and local adults, in protests near the capitol complex. The Montgomery County sheriff’s posse met them on horseback and drove them back, whipping them. The SNCC students responded violently, throwing bricks and bottles. One leader said later, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off.”

Finally, on March 17th, the injunction against marching was lifted and the third march was organized. To ensure that this march would not be as unsuccessful as the first two marches were, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard on March 20 to escort the march from Selma. On Sunday, March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to commence the trek to Montgomery. In the first legs of the journey, the march was limited to 300 people over the two lane section of Highway 80. So at the end of the day most left and 300 camped in muddy fields so that they could walk the two lane section. When the highway was back to 4 lanes,  additional marchers were ferried by bus and car to join the line, with over several thousand marchers participating on the outskirts of Montgomery. That night on a makeshift stage, a “Stars for Freedom” rally was held, with singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez, Nina Simone and The Chad Miller Trio all performing. Thousands more people continued to join the march.

On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from St. Jude to the steps of the Montgomery Alabama State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech How Long, Not Long. He said:

The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”

After delivering the speech, King and the marchers approached the entrance to the capitol with a petition for Governor Wallace. A line of state troopers blocked the door. One announced that the governor was not in. Undeterred, the marchers remained at the entrance until one of Wallace’s secretaries appeared and took the petition.

The third march received national and international coverage; it publicized the marchers’ message without harassment by police and segregation supporters. Gaining more widespread support from other civil rights organizations in the area, this march was considered an overall success, with greater influence on the public. Voter registration drives were organized in black-majority areas across the South, but it took time to get people signed up.

The marches had a powerful effect in Washington. After witnessing TV coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” President Johnson met with Governor Wallace in Washington to discuss the civil rights situation in his state. He tried to persuade Wallace to stop the state harassment of the protesters. Two nights later, on March 15, 1965, Johnson presented a bill to a joint session of Congress. The bill was passed that summer and signed by Johnson as the Voting Rights Act.

Johnson’s televised speech in front of Congress was carried nationally; it was considered to be a watershed moment for the civil rights movement. He said:

“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

 

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BHM 2017 – Day 4: Civil Rights Lawyers Across America

I hope to make these interesting. And if not, to show just how many lawyers were involved in the civil rights effort. Aside from Marshall and Motley, I haven’t heard of Any of them. So again, I hope their stories are compelling, even if I can only share a piece of who they were.

Arthur Shores (1904 – 1996) was considered Alabama’s “drum major for justice”. A member of Alpha Phi Alpha, he graduated from Talladega, spent one year at the law school of  U Kansas, then did the rest of his law training by correspondence school, passing the bar in 1937. He went straight into civil rights law, fighting for the right to vote, fighting to open unions to black firemen, fighting for equal pay. He fought before the Supreme Court for Autherine Lucy to be able to attended U Alabama in 1955. His hope was fire-bombed twice, in 1963 when he was trying to integrate Birmingham public schools, 11 days before the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.

Spottswood Robinson III (1916-1977) joined the NAACP LDF in 1947. Previously he went to school at Virginia Union University and graduate from Howard Law School in 1939. He was part of the team that argued Brown v. Board of Education. Robinson was initially involved in the case when in 1951, a group of Virginia students wanted to obtain equal facilities in their school (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County)  He convinced them instead to argue for integration. Robinson returned to Howard University School of Law to become dean from 1960-1964. He left to become the first African American to be appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In 1966, Judge Robinson became the first African American appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. He retired from the bench in 1989.

Oliver Hill (1907 – 2007) was another NAACP LDF lawyer. He was a student of Charles Houston at Howard, having attended undergraduate and graduate school there. He graduated 2nd in his class behind Marshall in 1933. He worked with Robinson on the Davis case, ending up on the team of lawyers working on the Brown case in front of the Supreme Court. He continued practicing law up to 1998 and was honored with the NAACP Spingarn Award as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jack Greenberg, (1924- ) was the first white and youngest lawyer on the NAACP team. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at Columbia University, graduating in 1948 and went straight into the NAACP LDF in 1949. The piece of the Brown case that Greenberg worked on was the Delaware case, Gebhart v. Belton. Delaware was one of the 17 states with segregated schools, in fact, it was written into the state constitution, and while the schools were supposed to be equal, African-American schools in Delaware were generally decrepit, with poor facilities, substandard curricula, and shoddy construction.  Delaware had a special court system, with a Court of Chancery for deciding cases involving equity vs. money.  The court ruled that segregation was untenable, but since it would overrule the original Plessy v. Ferguson case (separate but equal – 18xx), it needed to be argued in the supreme court. After the Brown case, when Marshall went on to the Supreme Court, from 1961 to 1984, Greenberg served as director-counsel. In 1984, he became a member of the faculty at Columbia University Law School. He was the dean of Columbia College from 1989-1993, after which he remained on the faculty of the law school.

John (1919–1984) and Charles(1921–1989) Scott. John Scott received his formal education at Topeka High School and the University of Kansas. After graduation, John followed in his father’s footsteps and in 1942 entered the law school at Washburn University. He completed only two years before he was called for active duty in World War II. In 1946 John Scott returned to Washburn University to complete his law degree. He graduated on June 8, 1947, and joined the family law firm. Charles Scott attended Topeka Public Schools and graduated from Topeka High School. In 1940 he began pursuing a career in law by enrolling at Washburn, only to be interrupted by World War II. During the war he was assigned to the all-black Second Calvary Division and served in southern France.. In 1946, after the war, Charles Scott reenrolled in Washburn University and acquired his law degree in 1948. From there he joined the family practice where he, his father and brother were successful in securing the racial integration of elementary schools in South Park, Johnson County, Kansas as well as several cases that sought to allow blacks access to swimming pools, theaters, and restaurants in Topeka. In 1951 Charles and John Scott were among the attorneys who represented the NAACP in filing their landmark case, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. Only in their early thirties, Charles and his brother had gained national attention as a result of the Brown case. Charles chose to stay in Topeka to pursue civil and human rights issues, while John relocated to Washington dc, where he took a position in the Department of the Interior as assistant solicitor.

James Nabrit Jr. (1900 – 1997) was born in Georgia, attended Morehouse and went on to school at Northwestern U Law School in 1927. He then taught colleges in Louisiana and Arkansas and had a private practice in Texas. Nabrit began teaching law at Howard in 1936, served as dean of the law school in1958 and became Howard’s president from 1960-1965. During the 1940’s – 1950’s he helped with NAACP LDF cases. He handled the Bolling vs. Sharpe case around desegregating DC public schools, which went forward to the Supreme Court as part of the Brown case.

James Nabrit III (1932 – 2013), son of Nabrit Jr., was educated in the then-segregated public schools of Washington, D. attended, Bates College in Maine and Yale Law School.  Prior to joining LDF, Mr. Nabrit was in private practice was in active duty service for two years in the United States Army Signal Corps. Nabrit joined the LDF in 1959. He was a quiet, but forceful presence at LDF.  He was known for his meticulous preparation of briefs and brilliant appellate advocacy.  During his long tenure at LDF, Nabrit played a critical role in the series of cases involving issues that helped transform American society, including school desegregation, public accommodations, prison conditions and criminal defense.  He argued on twelve occasions in the United States Supreme Court, prevailing in nine of those cases. Nabrit was part of the team that wrote the plan presented to Judge Frank Johnson in Alabama in 1965 for the final Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  He served on the team that litigated the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, represented civil rights activists arrested during sit-ins in Louisiana, and was a key figure in the litigation desegregating schools in Northern Virginia.  He played a seminal role in the Keyes v. Denver School District No.1 school desegregation litigation.  Nabrit’s Supreme Court and appellate practice also included the representation of inmates on death row, and he recalled these cases as the ones of which he was most proud.

Frank D. Reeves (1916-1973) Reeves was born in Montreal, Canada. He earned undergraduate and law degrees at Howard University. After receiving his law degree in 1939, Reeves worked for the NAACP in New York City. In the 1950s he worked with Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, and others on the battle to desegregate public schools. He was the first African American chosen to sit on the DC Board of Commissioners, the three-man panel that ran the city from 1874 until limited home rule was instituted in 1967. Reeves helped argue the Brown case in 1954. In 1960 Reeves became the first African American member of the Democratic National Committee. He served as an advisor on minority affairs to Senator John F. Kennedy during his campaign for the presidency.

Reeves taught at the Howard University School of Law during the 1960s. At the same time he was legal counsel to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and helped negotiate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well as the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1967.

Louis Lorenzo Redding (October 25, 1901 – September 28, 1998) was born in Alexandria, VA, attended Brown U graduating with honors, taught at Morehouse and then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1928. He passed the Delaware bar in 1929 and became the first black lawyer in Delaware, and the only one in the state for 25 years. Before the Brown case, Redding argued a successful case to integrate the University of Delaware. In 1952, he brought a case to Delaware’s Chancery court to integrate the public schools. The judge wanted to rule in favor, but did not want to contradict the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine, and pushed the case to the Supreme Court, where it was combined into the Brown case. Later in 1961, Redding argued a case upholding the Supreme Court decision that public accommodations be integrated. All totaled, Redding practiced law for 57 years.

Simpson Tate (1900 – 1968) was born in Alabama, attended Lincoln U for his bachelors and masters, then went on to Howard U for his law degree in 1947. In 1948 he moved to Texas and became the attorney for the Southwest Region of the NAACP. In 1949, he filed a legal challenge to improve a black public school in Arkansas,  alleging that the black high school was old and unsafe.  He also noted the omission of certain subjects at the African American school such as chemistry, physics, and the romance languages—courses that were available at the white high school. He then embraced the NAACP strategy to desegregate colleges, starting with Louisiana State University Law School. By 1954, 11 Texas junior colleges were integrated. He also filed against several institutions, including the University of North Texas College, Lamar College, Midwestern University, and the University of Texas, El Paso. Tate won dozens of lawsuits that desegregated schools, parks, hospitals, and other public facilities across the Southwest. Tate worked on other cases as well, including a 1951 challenge to voting discrimination in Harrison County, Texas. Tate also filed a successful lawsuit against the United Steelworkers of America which helped to end segregation in the steel industry in Texas. Tate died of a stroke in 1968 at the age of 68. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP in 1955, remarked that “Mr. Tate rendered invaluable service not only to the NAACP but to the entire southwest region.”

 

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BHM 2017 Day 2: The NAACP Equalization Strategy

Hi all,

Today I’m just going focus on efforts to end segregation of public schools and colleges. Tomorrow, I’ll go over some of the other cases.

In 1909, the NAACP commenced what has become its legacy of fighting legal battles to win social justice for African-Americans and indeed, for all Americans. The most significant of these battles were fought and won under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and his student and protégée, Thurgood Marshall.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Houston trained the first generation of Civil Rights lawyers during his years as Dean of Howard University’s Law School. Houston was appointed in 1935 to be the first Special Counsel of the NAACP. Often referred to as the “Moses of the civil rights movement,” Houston was the architect and chief strategist of the NAACP’s legal campaign to end segregation. Houston amassed a consortium of Black lawyers including Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley as part of a “West Point of Negro Leadership” according to the organization’s account. These attorneys would combat racial segregation alongside Houston.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” principle – as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment (“no State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws”). In a study commissioned by the NAACP in the 1930s, Nathan Margold found that under segregation, the facilities provided for blacks were always separate, but never equal to those maintained for whites. This, Margold argued, violated the equality aspect of Plessy’s “separate but equal” principle. Margold proposed a series of lawsuits that would challenge the system.

After joining the NAACP, Houston refined Margold’s recommendations, developed a strategy, and implemented a battle plan. Under Houston’s “equalization strategy,” lawsuits were filed demanding that the facilities provided for black students be made equal to those available to white students, carefully stopping short of a direct challenge to Plessy. Houston predicted that the states that practiced segregation could not afford to maintain black schools that were actually equal to those reserved for whites. From 1935 to 1940, Houston successfully argued several cases using this strategy, including Murray v. Maryland, (1936) which resulted in the desegregation of the University of Maryland’s Law School and State ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the admission of a black student to the Law School at the University of Missouri (1938).

When Thurgood Marshall succeeded Houston as NAACP’s Special Counsel, he continued the Association’s legal campaign. In 1950, Marshall won cases that struck down Texas and Oklahoma laws requiring segregated graduate schools. In Sweatt v. Painter, the court ruled against a Texas attempt to circumvent Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada with a hastily established inferior law school for black students. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma, the court ruled against practices of segregation within a formerly all-white graduate school insofar as they interfered with meaningful classroom instruction and interaction with other students. In those cases, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required those states to admit black students to their graduate and professional schools.

In 1953, Thurgood Marshall and a team of NAACP LDF lawyers argued Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in front of the US Supreme Court.  The case combined five cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliot – filed in South Carolina, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County – filed in Virginia, Gebhart v. Belton – filed in Delaware and Bolling v. Sharpe – filed in Washington DC. All were NAACP-sponsored cases being appealed from lower courts where Plessy v. Ferguson was upheld and in nearly all cases, discrimination was found to be lawful.

The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of  racial segregation while masquerading as providing separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 in which it was prohibited. The “doll test” research presented substantial arguments to the Supreme Court about how segregation affected black schoolchildren’s mental status.

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests” to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.  Drs. Clark used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Their subjects, children between the ages of three to seven, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they prefer. A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem. In a particularly memorable episode while Dr. Clark was conducting experiments in rural Arkansas, he asked a black child which doll was most like him. The child responded by smiling and pointing to the brown doll: “That’s a nigger. I’m a nigger.”

(Although Dr. Kenneth Clark is most famous for the “Doll Tests,” his personal achievements are equally as prestigious. He was the first African American to earn a PhD in psychology at Columbia; to hold a permanent professorship at the City College of New York; to join the New York State Board of Regents; and to serve as president of the American Psychological Association. His wife Mamie Clark was the first African-American woman and the second African-American, after Kenneth Clark, to receive a doctorate in psychology at Columbia.)

The United States and the Soviet Union were both at the height of the Cold War during this time, and U.S. officials, including Supreme Court Justices, were highly aware of the harm that segregation and racism played on America’s international image. When Justice William O. Douglas traveled to India  in 1950, the first question he was asked was, “Why does America tolerate the lynching of Negroes?” Douglas later wrote that he had learned from his travels that “the attitude of the United States toward its colored minorities is a powerful factor in our relations with India.” In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief in the case. The brief was unusual in its heavy emphasis on foreign policy considerations of the Truman administration in a case ostensibly about domestic issues. Of the seven pages covering “the interest of the United States,” five focused on the way school segregation hurt the United States in the Cold War competition for the friendship and allegiance of non-white peoples in countries then gaining independence from colonial rule.  Attorney General James P. McGranery noted that

The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.

The brief also quoted a letter by Secretary of State Dean Acheson lamenting that:

The United States is under constant attack in the foreign press, over the foreign radio, and in such international bodies as the United Nations because of various practices of discrimination in this country.

In spring 1953, the Court heard the case but was unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953, with special attention to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks. The Court reargued the case at the behest of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who used reargument as a stalling tactic, to allow the Court to gather a consensus around a Brown opinion that would outlaw segregation. The justices in support of desegregation spent much effort convincing those who initially intended to dissent to join a unanimous opinion. Although the legal effect would be same for a majority rather than unanimous decision, it was felt that dissent could be used by segregation supporters as a legitimizing counter-argument. .Chief Justice Vinson was a key stumbling block. After Vinson died in September 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Warren had supported the integration of Mexican-American students in California school systems. Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of Negroes. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive Southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion.

The key holding of the Court was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was harmful to black students and unconstitutional. They found that a significant psychological and social disadvantage was given to black children from the nature of segregation itself, drawing on research conducted by City College of NY psychologist Kenneth Clark assisted by NAACP staffer June Shagaloff.  This aspect was vital because the question was not whether the schools were “equal”, which under Plessy they nominally should have been, but whether the doctrine of separate was constitutional. The justices answered with a strong “no”:

[D]oes segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. …

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.” …

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone”

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The 17 Southern states requiring segregation of schools were not convinced of the legitimacy of the Court’s decision. Some states’ lower courts found it acceptable to dismiss the decision altogether. The reality was that unless the ruling was enforced, it was not sufficient.  And so the actual integration of schools became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement for the next 15 years.

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