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The Supreme Court, Segregation and Public Opinion

The US by 1950 had people who believed that racism and segregation were harming the image of the United States on the international stage. There had been Gunnar Myrdal's book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (published in 1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration. UNESCO's 1950 Statement raised the issue of fair treatment of those of African descent. There was also the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), incorporated in 1911, which funded and pursued legal action on behalf of civil rights, and with the NAACP bearing the expense, civil rights litigation came to the fore. The NAACP asked African-American parents to attempt to enroll their children in all-white schools, with the expectation that they would be turned away.

In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas. The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. The question went before the Supreme Court in 1954. The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. In 1950 his daughter Linda, a third grader, had walked six blocks to a bus stop and then had to ride a bus one mile to her segregated black school, rather than attend a white school four (or seven) blocks from her home.

While the case was pending, President Eisenhower, who had lived in Texas and in Kansas, chatted with his friend Chief Justice Earl Warren (whom he was to regret having appointed to the Court). Eisenhower asked Warren to consider the perspective of white parents regarding school integration. "These are not bad people," he said. "All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black bucks." (The Atlantic, April 2018 issue)

Warren was to mention the incident in his memoirs, and reports confirm that Eisenhower in private used racially charged language. But Eisenhower was dutifull beyond his respect for the feelings of white parents. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown and school desegregation, Eisenhower announced:

The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country, and I will obey.

More conflict and organizing, including a bus boycott in Montgomery

In 1954 Jackie Robinson's was in his seventh year in major league baseball. People opposed to integration were watching blacks having successes in the world of popular entertainment. Count Basie and Nat King Cole were popular. Harry Belafonte's career was moving along. Fats Domino had sold more than a million records, as had Big Mama Thorton with her lively song "Hound Dog." But celebrity was to a great extent about distance (while Nat King Cole, for example, had his lawn defaced and suffered other abuse in Hollywood).

After the Supreme Court decision on the Brown case School, desegregation remained a big issue, especially in the South. The Supreme Court was defied in Alabama when 23 black children were prevented from attending an all-white elementary school in the city of Montgomery. Mississippi defied the Court by abolishing its public schools and founding private academies for white students. Integration of a high school in Milford, Delaware, collapsed when white students boycotted classes.

On January 15, 1955, Eisenhower moved in favor of equal rights by signing an Executive Order establishing the President's Committee on Government Policy to enforce non-discrimination in Federal employment. On April 5, Mississippi continued in the opposite direction on April 5 with a law that penalized with jail-time and fines any white students who attended school with blacks. On July 11 the Georgia Board of Education ordered that any teacher supporting integration was to be fired. In August in Mississippi a fourteen-year-old from Chicago, Emmett Till, was murdered after he was thought to have whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. Till's mother wrote Eisenhower asking for support, and Eisenhower didn't respond.

That year, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks created a stir that was also to make its way to the Supreme Court. In December, Parks was on a bus on her way home from her job as a seamstress in a department store. A man boarded the bus and exercised his privilege as a white by asked blacks to move to the rear so he could take a seat. The blacks around Parks complied, but Parks refused to move. She was tired. She was also a part-time activist for the local chapter of NAACP. The bus driver called the police, who came and took Parks to the police station, where she was fingerprinted and jailed. She called an NAACP lawyer. The city of Montgomery fined Parks, and her lawyer advised her not to pay. Encouraged by the Supreme Court's ruling on segregation in public schools, the NAACP wanted to test the constitutionality of segregation in public bussing.

In Montgomery, a committee of African-Americans including church leaders formed to support Parks. One of them was (Martin Luther King Jr, pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The group organized a boycott of the city's busses. In late February, three months after the arrest of Parks, the city indicted King, twenty-four other ministers and a hundred others for conspiring to prevent the bus company from operating its business. Someone bombed King's home. It was the beginning of a revival of terrorism in the Deep South.

In April 1956, the Supreme Court struck down segregation on buses nationwide. In early June, the US District Court ruled that racial segregation of Alabama city bus lines was unconstitutional. The bus boycott continued, and the bus company suffered. By December 26, blacks and whites began riding the buses without forced segregation. In January, 1957, there were more bombings in Montgomery, including three Baptist Churches and the home of a white minister. A lot of blacks became most comfortable riding again in the back of the bus, and soon Rosa Parks, with her husband and mother, left Montgomery because of death threats and employment blacklisting and moved to Detroit, Michigan.

In February 1957, King was elected president of a newly formed group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In August, William F. Buckley wrote an editorial for his magazine the National Review titled "Why the South Must Prevail." Buckley described disagreement with the NAACP and others "contending most Negroes approve the social separation of the races." He argued:

The central question that emerges ... whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

Little Rock

On July 27 1957, President Eisenhower declared at a new conference that he could not imagine any set of circumstances that would induce him to send federal troops into the South. Eisenhower did not want involvement in what he regarded as a state problem, but on 9 September he did sign the Civil Rights Act of 1957, to be described as a show of support for the Supreme Court's 1954 school integration decision – although the Civil Rights Act was primarily a voting rights bill. Most blacks in the South had been effectively disfranchised by discriminatory voter registration rules and laws. The bill had been resisted fiercely by segregationist senators, and Senate Majority leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas had watered down the bill wanting recognition from civil rights advocates for its passage while not alienating his white Southern base. The result was a bill difficult to enforce, and Black voting by 1960 was to barely increase.

Then events pushed on Eisenhower. September was the back-to-school month, and in Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered troops to block black students — The Little Rock Nine from enrollment. At a press conference, Eisenhower was asked what he thought about the situation in Little Rock. Eisenhower replied that he was in contact with the Attorney General's office and added:

Now, time and again a number of people--I, among them-have argued that you cannot change people's hearts merely by laws. Laws presumably express the conscience of a nation and its determination or will to do something. But the laws here are to be executed gradually, according to the dictum of the Supreme Court, and I understand that the plan worked out by the school board of Little Rock was approved by the district judge. I believe it is a ten-year plan.

The mayor of Little Rock (a US Navy World War II veteran) was outraged by the Governor Faubus's action and sent Eisenhower a telegram requesting federal troops. On September 24, Eisenhower put the Arkansas National Guard under the federal government's authority, and he ordered the 101 Airborne Division to Little Rock. Many had been discomforted by the ugliness of the events in Little Rock, and Eisenhower addressed the nation with justification for his sending troops:

...under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a Federal Court... I know that the overwhelming majority of the people in the South including those of Arkansas and of Little Rock are of good will, united in their efforts to preserve and respect the law even when they disagree with it... At a time when we face grave situations abroad because of the hatred that Communism bears toward a system of government based on human rights, it would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world.

More Conflict

On October 9, Florida's legislature voted to close any school to which federal troops were sent. The Texas legislature did the same in late November. On June 29, 1958, the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing four girls. The NAACP Youth Council turned its attention to the desegregation of Drug Store lunch counters, and in July it sponsored sit-ins at a lunch counter at a Doctum drug store in Wichita, Kansas. Within weeks all of that company's drug stores in Kansas were desegregated. In August, sit-ins in Oklahoma City started a successful string of desegregations there.

In September 1958 another back-to-school crisis arose in Arkansas with Governor Faubus ordering Little Rock's four high schools closed pending the outcome of a public vote. The vote was 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remain closed, to be described as the Lost Year in Little Rock.

(NOTE ON FAUBUS: Orval Faubus' father had been an avowed socialist. In his 1954 campaign, Orval Faubus had to defend his having attended what hostile people called a "communist school". Faubus had moved from his father's socialism to Roosevelt's New Deal and was elected governor as a liberal democrat. He adopted policies regarding race that were palatable to the white voters of his state.)

On September 29 the Supreme Court ruled that states may not use evasive measures to avoid desegregation, and on October 8 a federal judge in Harrisonburg, Virginia, ruled that public money may not be used for segregated private schools. On October 20, thirteen blacks were arrested for sitting in front of bus in Birmingham.

On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for a cup of coffee. They were asked to leave and refused. The sit-in movement soon spread to college towns throughout the South.

Also in February, Eisenhower proposed the legislation that was to become the Civil Rights Act of 1960. It was designed to eliminate loopholes left by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, with federal inspections and penalties for obstructing attempts to register to vote. No Republican Senators voted against the Bill. Eighteen Democratic Party Senators did. The House vote 295 for and 288 against. The bill was to be considered unenforceable and ineffective.

Rights advocates were asking for defiance of the popular opinion that was supporting segregation. The segregationists, social conservatives and those wanting to go slow regarding integration were asking for respect for popular segregation opinion. They were quiet about the Bill of Rights (the US Constitution) subordinating popular opinion to human rights. The Republican Party platform going into the presidential election of 1960 tried to be on both sides of the issue. The "Party of Lincoln" on Eisenhower's side in upholding rulings of the Supreme Court. (Southern Senators were still Democrats.) But the party's platform stated that "The federal government should assist selectively in strengthening education without interfering with full local control of schools," and the platform declared that the "Primary responsibility for education must remain with the local community and state."

In July, the Democratic Party's nominee for president, Jack Kennedy, was also trying to appease segregationist opinion. Kennedy was courting the votes of Southern whites. In a private conversation with Georgia's Governor Vandiver, Kennedy promised that as president he would never use federal troops to force Georgia to desegregate its schools.

Reverend King and the Presidential Campaign

On October 19, Reverend King and dozens of others were arrested at a Department Store sit-in in Atlanta. Charges against 16 of the group were dropped and 35 others were released on bond. King was kept in jail was transferred to Reidsville State Prison and then sentenced to four months in a Georgia public works camp.

Jack Kennedy's brother-in-law Sargent Shriver was working on Kennedy's campaign, and he told Kennedy:

Negroes don’t expect everything will change tomorrow, no matter who’s elected. But they do want to know whether you care. If you telephone Mrs King, they will know you understand and will help. You will reach their hearts and give support to a pregnant woman who is afraid her husband will be killed.

On the phone, Kennedy told Mrs King: "I want to express to you my concern about your husband. I know this must be very hard for you." He mentioned that he was aware she was expecting a baby and added: "I just wanted you to know that I was thinking about you and Dr. King. If there is anything I can do to help, please feel free to call on me." Coretta Scott King thanked him, saying: "I would appreciate anything you could do to help." The call lasted no more than ninety seconds.

Kennedy's campaign manager, Kenny O’Donnell, was upset with Shriver, telling him that he had "just lost us the election." Kennedy's brother, Bobby, claimed that Kennedy "was going to get defeated because of the stupid call." Bobby spoke of three Southern governors who had said that if his brother Jack supported Jimmy Hoffa, Nikita Khrushchev, or Martin Luther King, they would throw their states to Nixon.

King was released on a $2,000 bond. Speaking to reporters he said he was indebted to Kennedy, that Kennedy's courage showed "that he is really acting upon principle and not expediency. He said he was convinced that Kennedy "will seek to exercise the power of his office to fully implement the civil rights plank of his party’s platform," and he mentioned that he had not heard from Vice President Richard Nixon and knew of no Republican efforts on his behalf.

The publisher of the Harlem newspaper Citizen-Call editorialized:

Mr. Nixon, in his refusal to comment or take a stand on the civil rights issue that Rev. King's arrest symbolized, merely extends the say-nothing, do-nothing rule by golf-club philosophy of President Eisenhower regarding this moral issue.

It was a close election. Nixon gathered only 32 percent of the black vote, compared to Eisenhower's 39 percent in 1956. Kennedy needed the electoral votes of Illinois to win the election, and he won Illinois by the narrow margin of 0.2 percent. Nixon was to complain that by "no comment" he had really meant "no comment at this time."

CONTINUE READING: Eisenhower and the US Economy

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