May 17, 1954: The Supreme Court unanimously rules public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
Fifty-nine years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case that the segregation of public schools was prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; newly-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the opinion:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact 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…. We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
The doctrine of “separate but equal” as justification for racial segregation emerged in the United States in the 1890s and was upheld in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court ruled that states could enact racial segregation laws; in the South, this legitimized the dismantlement of Reconstruction Era reform and the South’s enactment of Jim Crow laws. Many states in the North/members of the Union during the Civil War also maintained racially segregated schools — it was the policy of the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that Oliver L. Brown and twelve other plaintiffs sought to challenge, after all. At the time, the Board’s policy permitted Topeka’s school districts to segregate their elementary and middle schools. Under the direction of the NAACP, each of the plaintiffs enrolled their children in local all-white schools and, when their children were refused enrollment, filed a class action suit in the District Court of Kansas, which subsequently ruled in favor of the Board. This decision took place in 1951.
The case that was heard by the Supreme Court in 1953 was a combination of five similar cases (all backed by the NAACP), including Brown v. Board, which lent the Supreme Court case its name. After much deliberation, including a request to rehear the case after the court failed to reach a decision the first time, the Warren Court banned (in a unanimous decision) the segregation of public schools. The justices were divided on how Brown could be enforced and on the issue of judicial activism versus restraint, though Warren pushed for unanimity to further legitimize the decision and prevent Southern resistance (it did not). Although Brown was a key decision and the first step toward the end of de jure segregation, the path to desegregation was long and rocky; Topeka desegregated its elementary schools within two years, but resistance in the South against the court’s decision and against desegregation was inexorable, resulting in incidents such as the Little Rock Crisis and other manifestations of what Virginian politicians dubbed “massive resistance”.
April 15, 1947: Jackie Robinson breaks the “baseball color line”.
Professional American baseball was established in 1869, four years after the end of the Civil War; while African-Americans did have their own clubs and professional leagues, Major League Baseball was de facto segregated from its founding until 1946 (non-whites had previously played in the MLB, however), when Jackie Robinson, a Georgian and a Negro League baseball player, signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field in front of a crowd of 26,000, over half of whom were black. Robinson received torrents of racist hatred and resentment from spectators, from opposing teams, and from even his own teammates. When Robinson, who had once been court-martialed during his time as an army officer for refusing to move to the back of a bus asked Branch Rickey, “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey famously responded that he was looking for a player “with guts enough not to fight back”. Robinson’s first step toward the integration of Major League Baseball was neither smooth nor simple - Robinson was heckled with slurs and even injured while playing, he and his family were met with death threats and violence, and some of his own teammates refused to play alongside a black player (though others, like Pee Wee Reese and Hank Greenberg defended Robinson). But his debut was a monumental moment in baseball history; in 1948, 1951, and 1956, baseball greats like Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron all signed with major league teams.
In 1962, Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His jersey number, 42, has since been retired by all Major League Baseball teams. Later in his life, he served on the board of directors of the NAACP, supported the SCLC and CORE, and worked to promote civil rights - writing that he wouldn’t “‘have it made’ until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America.”
April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated.
The night before his assassination, King delivered his last speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee; popularly known as “I’ve Been to the Mountain”, this speech was made in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and called upon the United States to “be true to what you said on paper”. At the end of his speech, King famously foreshadowed his own death:
Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Over the years, King had been the recipient of countless death threats, including a bomb threat made against him on his way to Memphis, and so he had become accustomed to the possibility that he might suffer a premature death as so many civil rights workers and leaders had before him.
At around 6 PM, King was standing on the balcony outside his room at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel when he was struck by a single bullet through the cheek, fired from a pump-action rifle wielded by James Earl Ray, who shortly afterward fled north to Canada. After being taken to the hospital, King was pronounced dead five minutes after 7. All across the United States, violent riots in Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere broke out during the week following the assassination, though notably not in Indianapolis, where Robert F. Kennedy (who would be assassinated two months later) had delivered arguably his most famous speech informing the city’s residents of King’s death. The funeral, which took place on April 9, was attended by 300,000 people, and a bill to establish a holiday in his honor was presented in Congress not long after. King’s family, and many others besides, maintain that James Earl Ray (a small-time criminal) was the scapegoat of a conspiracy involving the U.S. government and FBI. It is fact that the FBI’s COINTELPRO closely monitored King’s (and other “subversives’) activities intensely, often through illegal and dubious means, such as wiretapping and anonymous letters urging him to commit suicide.
LIFE: The Day MLK Was Assassinated
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, delivered the night before his death - April 3, 1968.
March 7, 1965: The first Selma to Montgomery March (“Bloody Sunday”) takes place.
During the 1960s, only small percentages of the large populations of eligible black voters in certain parts of the South could actually vote, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Voter registration programs organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups (including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) were established in these states, but they were met with fierce opposition: during the 1964 “Freedom Summer” campaign, designed to register African-Americans in Mississippi, eighty civil rights workers were beaten by white residents; in one notorious incident, local Klansmen ambushed and murdered three workers as retribution for their efforts in attempting to register and educate disfranchised voters.
In 1965, a voter registration campaign focused in Selma, Alabama, began - at the head of this revived effort was Martin Luther King, Jr., the SNCC, and the SCLC. On March 7, a group of several hundred people set out from Selma on a fifty-four-mile march toward Montgomery, but this protest was stopped short in a brief and violent confrontation (later known as “Bloody Sunday”) between the marchers and state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of the main catalysts for the march, besides the ongoing struggle over voting restrictions, was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by an Alabama State Trooper a week earlier; however, the events of Bloody Sunday garnered more national attention than Jackson’s murder.
As the Selma marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by state troopers, who began to shove and beat them, while another detachment fired tear gas into the crowd. Among those injured in the attack was John Lewis, who escaped the beatings with a fractured skull. These acts of violence against peaceful protesters were widely publicized and highly influential in turning public opinion in favor of the Civil Rights Movement. Following the second ceremonial march, conducted on March 9, a white minister named James Reeb was severely injured by KKK members and later died after the hospital in Selma turned him away; the death of a white minister captured the public’s attention even more securely. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led a third march on March 21, 25,000 people gathered in Montgomery to hear him speak and deliver his “How Long, Not Long” speech, and after President Johnson witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday on television, he was compelled to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress and did so on March 15; he also delivered his own speech to a joint session of Congress in which he quoted an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement - “we shall overcome” - in an obvious and momentous display of support for the movement.
Johnson’s bill passed in August as the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
February 21, 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated.
Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain - and we will smile. Many will say turn away - away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man - and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate - a fanatic, a racist - who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.
Eulogy of Malcolm X, delivered February 27, 1965