Civil Rights Strides
During the 1950s, a very prominent case took center stage, advancing the interests of African-Americans. There were laws in 17 states (mostly Southern) that established racial segregation in public schools. Other states segregated children by district. All justified the practice by using the “separate but equal” standard, according to a Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson) in 1896.
But in 1954, the NAACP challenged this doctrine at the elementary school level. Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that children in all-white schools received a better education than those in all-black schools. It was not an easy decision, but Chief Justice Earl Warren used his considerable influence among the two dissenting justices in order to reach a unanimous decision that May.
That case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, outlawed racial segregation in public schools. As fate would have it, Marshall argued 32 cases before the high Court, winning 29 of them. In 1967, he became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court.
Some Southern states, however, defied the ruling. In 1957, President Eisenhower used federal troops to protect African-American students attempting to attend a previously all-white public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Another landmark moment that propelled civil rights forward involved a weary seamstress named Rosa Parks who boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of her workday.
Although the forward section was traditionally reserved for white passengers, Parks sat down there. When asked to give up her seat for a white person and move to the back of the bus, she declined. Arrested and jailed, she became a symbol for the struggle to attain racial equality as the African-American community rallied around this refined, mild-mannered woman.
Local black ministers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., organized a boycott of the bus system. For over a year, African-Americans in Montgomery used car pools, walked to work, or rode horses to get around. Only when the Supreme Court ordered the city to stop segregating black passengers in 1956 did the boycott end.