When one contemplates American society in the 1950s, the word “boom” often comes to mind. After all, America had won the war, demonstrating unprecedented military strength. The economy was booming, suburb development was booming, and even childbirth rates were booming. As described by Winston Churchill, “ America at this moment stands at the summit of the world.” The 1950s also illustrate a darker side to American history, characterized as a country stricken by racism and segregation, yet in the midst of a divided people, birthed the civil rights movement which continues to inspire and echo throughout history with the tremendous perseverance and bravery demonstrated by the growing group of Americans who spoke out against inequality during this time. This essay will explore the history of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s, focusing on how prejudice fueled public segregation, and the events that played a major role in shifting the American culture away from discrimination. My goal in this research is to better understand many of the ways in which prejudice toward different ethnic groups influenced American culture and society and in turn, how these prejudices were battled during the civil rights movement.
Even after the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendment were introduced, “African Americans were often treated differently than white Americans and “many state legislatures enacted laws that led to the legally mandated segregation of blacks and whites. These strictures which came to be known as the Jim Crow laws fostered resentment and anger among black people. They insured that Blacks and whites could not use the same bathrooms, ride the same buses, and had to attend separate schools which were often primitive for blacks, (Patterson, 11). abolitionists fought against them. For example, the Brown v. Board case refers to five separate cases that were heard by the Supreme Court concerning the issue of segregation at schools.” “When the cases came to the Supreme Court in 1952, the court consolidated all five cases under this name; Brown v. Board. Black leader Thurgood Marshall took it upon himself and his team of attorneys to prosecute this evil and challenge Jim Crow head on. He argued that the segregated schools were inherently unequal and thus violated the fourteenth amendment under the “equal protection clause.” Another key element in Marshall’s argument against separate schools was that segregation degraded black children’s self esteem. He based a great deal of his argument on information from psychologist Kenneth B. Clark. Clark and his wife conducted social experiments with black children that tested their “racial preference,” (Bergner, 299). During these studies he would ask them to choose between black dolls and white dolls. Clark surveyed a predominant preference toward white dolls among the black children. He also asked them questions regarding which doll was good and which doll was bad, which doll they would most like to play with, and which doll looked most like him or her. A great deal of children identified with the black doll while choosing the white doll as the doll that had the nicest complexion and they wanted to play with most. From the data collected, Clark inferred that the black children had “internalized society’s racist messages and thus suffered from wounded self-esteem,” (Bergner, 301). Clark was cited by the Supreme Court for the evidence that supported Marshall’s claim. The Supreme Court ruled racially segregated educational institutions as unconstitutional in 1954. However, Clark’s studies were later discredited on statistical grounds some years later, his tests represented shifting racial politics and operated as the vital foundation upon which the Brown v. Board case rested. The case of Brown v Board functioned as a key event in propelling the civil rights movement to greater heights, yet it was still just the beginning of an uphill battle, (Sarat, 43).
The first day of December, 1955 a forty-two year old African-American woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama which violated the city’s segregation laws. The city bus system was the black residents’ main form of transportation and the first ten seats were reserved for white people; if there were no whites on the bus then the seats would remain empty. On this monumental day, Parks was seated in a colored section, however, as more white people boarded, the bus driver ordered Parks to move to which she did not comply, explaining, “my feet were not tired but I was tired--tired of unfair treatment,” (Mcghee, 254). She was quickly arrested. Rosa Parks’ action spurred what became known as the Montgomery bus boycott. Once the news of Park's arrest circulated through the community, black leaders and residents convened to plan a boycott of the buses. The first boycott proved to be successful considering the Montgomery City Lines lost around seventy percent of its business in a single day, (Mcghee, 256). The success of the first boycott in combination with the fact that Parks had been convicted and fined ten dollars, made it clear that the boycotts would continue. As Thornton states, they called on every Montgomery citizen, “regardless of race, color, or creed” to participate in the boycotts, (75). Martin L. King along with other Montgomery representatives met with city and bus officials to discuss their requests which were to gain more courtesy from bus drivers, hire black drivers for predominantly black bus routes, and to rearrange the seating of blacks from the back toward the front and the whites from the front towards the back without insisting that section be kept clear for each group. The boycotts endured for more than a year following the arrest of Parks until the Supreme Court finally ruled the city’s segregated bus system as unconstitutional (Mcghee, 252).
Over the course of the boycotts, the city’s municipal bus company financially plummeted as Parks arrest provoked. On the 4th of September in 1957, three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated educational institutions was unjust, nine African-American students attempted to simulate into the Central High School of Little Rock, Arkansas. The names of these brave students are Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. These students became famously known as the Little Rock Nine. On the first day of school a mob of white people gathered in front of the school in opposition to the new integration and for the following three weeks, the Arkansas National Guard, ordered by Orval Faubus, barred the black students from entering. In retaliation to these measures, a team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) came together and won a federal district court injunction to stop the governor from blocking the student’s entry. By September 23, the students were able to successfully enter the school with the help of police escorts who let them in through the side of the building, yet, the trouble was far from over as the violence continued to escalate and they experienced assaults every day. In the midst of the conflict between Faubus and the federal judiciary, Martin Luther King took it upon himself to send a telegram to President Eisenhower that encouraged him to “take a strong forthright stand in the Little Rock situation,” because if the federal government did ont take a stand against the injustice it would “set the process of integration back fifty years” and emphasized the great opportunity that the government had to “back up the longings and aspirations of millions of peoples of goodwill and make law and order a reality,” (King, 1957). Eisenhower deployed more troops into the area in addition to ordering the Arkansas National Guard to protect the black students from harm’s way for the rest of the school year under the authority of the federal government. In spite of their struggles, the Little Rock Nine all graduated from high school and went on to college. The strength and courage demonstrated by the Little Rock Nine to integrate into a formerly all white school was a tremendous feat that changed the course of American history.
As a result of this, many Southern white people quickly withdrew their children from public schools and enrolled them in “all white academies” while using violence and intimidation to prevent black people from exercising their rights. Despite the countless measures that were taken by white people to protect segregation at the time, this ruling allowed for the admittance of the Little Rock Nine into a formerly “all white” school, catapulting the civil rights movement forward. Some other notable events worth examining include the refusal of Rosa Parks to abide by the segregational seating rules of a bus.