On the March
Thurgood Marshall was a giant figure in the American civil rights movement. He was legal director of the NAACP and lead attorney in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Marshall was named to the Supreme Court in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson, thereby becoming the first African-American in history to sit on the high court. He was a member of the court for 24 years.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared in a unanimous decision that the board of education of Topeka, Kansas, had to admit four African-American children to a previously all-white school.
Overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine adopted in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and, as such, violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” The ruling, the result of years of work by the NAACP, had the impact of a lightning strike.
The Brown ruling paved the way for large-scale desegregation—although it certainly did not bring desegregation about overnight. The winning attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was Thurgood Marshall, who later became the nation's first African-American justice of the Supreme Court.
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.
—Chief Justice Earl Warren, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Rosa Parks Takes a Ride
Worn out after a hard day's work, NAACP member and Montgomery, Alabama, resident Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a public bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. According to law and long-established custom, African-Americans were supposed to sit in the back of public buses. Police arrested Parks when she flaunted the law and the custom.
The Rosa Parks incident was, however, in no way spontaneous. Parks was part of a trained-for-civil-disobedience cadre of civil rights workers; her action was part of a preplanned strategy to call attention to southern separatist policies. Rosa Parks was certainly not the first to refuse to obey such laws, or to be arrested for refusing.
On the March
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had followed in his father and grandfather's footsteps to become a Baptist minister, helped organize the boycott of public transit in Montgomery, Alabama. It lasted for over a year and ultimately changed the law mandating segregated buses in Montgomery. In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was born, and King was its first president. Later that year, he led a march of 57,000 people on the Lincoln Memorial, and emerged as the clear leader of the growing movement to win civil and legal equality for African-Americans. In 1964, Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her case was, however, the cause for a new kind of reaction from the community. In response to Parks's arrest, African-American leaders launched a bus boycott. Thousands of African-Americans walked to and from work, school, and errands for more than a year, until the city capitulated and the buses were desegregated. A young preacher from the area, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was instrumental in the action's success.
The Little Rock Nine
The eventful year of 1957 saw a number of extraordinary events—among them, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and King's early march on Washington. But the most remarkable events in the civil rights realm took place in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Arkansas governor Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, in accordance with the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, he called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the admission of nine African-American students who had been carefully selected to be the first to integrate the school.
President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to send 1,000 paratroopers and federalize 10,000 members of the Arkansas National Guard to protect the students and uphold the law. When the students were duly admitted on September 25, 1957, a clear message was sent that the federal government would physically, as well as legally, support integration.