The first American civil rights revolution transpired in the aftermath of the Civil War. The process of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1876 attempted not only to reconstruct and reunite the Union politically but also to determine the status of the black American in the United States. The thirteenth amendment abolished for all time the institution of black slavery, the fourteenth amendment stipulated that citizenship and all its rights could not be denied on the basis of race, creed, or color, and the fifteenth amendment attempted to guarantee equal treatment for all citizens including ex-slaves.
With the end of the Reconstruction experience, however, a systematic retreat took place. In a long series of decisions including U. S. v. Cruikshank (1876), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court underwrote white supremacy, states rights, and the virtual nullification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments for the freedman. Blacks were systematically denied the right to vote, subjected to universal and legally-underwritten "Jim Crow" segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine, and relegated to economic poverty by tenant farming, sharecropping, and the crop-lien system. By the turn of the century, the overwhelming majority of black Americans lived only slightly better than they had during the times of slavery. For decades and decades any hope of civil rights progress was blocked by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of both the federal and state levels of government. It was not until the dual American crises of the Great Depression and World War II that things began to change.
Creating the Environment for Change: The Depression, New Deal,
and World War II
During the 1930s, all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, suffered to one degree or another through the economic collapse of the Great Depression. In many areas of the country, this lessened the divisiveness of the race issue. In response to the ravages of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt presided over a virtual remaking of the nationís governmental system. Laissez faire government gave way to active and interventionary policies. While the New Deal never attempted to deal forcefully and forthrightly with the race issue for a variety of reasons, the governmental change certainly elevated the hopes, expectations, and demands of minority communities. Americans of color benefited to a certain degree from the employment and relief programs of the New Deal. Hopes of civil rights progress were also elevated. As the government became larger and more active, the prospect of civil rights progress improved. A laissez faire government would seemingly never deal with the situation of racial minorities but an activist government - if systematically pressured - might finally tackle the problem of racism in America.
World War II also had its effect. The unprecedented economic expansion necessitated by Americaís role as the "Arsenal of Democracy" brought about tremendous demographic change which in turn made the problem of racism national in both scope and attitude. Black Americans migrated from the Deep South in ever increasing numbers to work in industrial manufacturing in the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West. As Americans of all races came into much greater contact with one another than ever before, stereotypes began to crumble. Furthermore, America began to feel guilty about racial discrimination during World War II. It was difficult to wage war against the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany while turning a deaf ear to the demands of minorities for equal treatment in the United States.
As a result of the Depression experience, the New Deal, and World War II, racial minorities were less willing to quietly and meekly accept systematic discrimination and white Americans were more willing to consider change in the area of civil rights.
The Courts and Civil Rights
During the first half of the twentieth century, the leaders of the civil rights movement turned primarily to the judiciary for relief. This concentration on the courts is understandable given several factors.
No chief executive from Rutherford B. Hayes to Harry S. Truman was willing to deal with the problems of minority Americans in an active and forceful manner. In part, this was simply a reflection of the prevailing national attitude. It was, however, also a reflection of the influence wielded by southerners in the United States Congress and the critical importance of the Solid South to the Democratic party at election time. Even Franklin Roosevelt, logically the most likely occupant of the Oval Office to have dealt with the problem given the many other social initiatives the New Deal undertook, refused to move. He felt that he couldnít afford to estrange conservative Southern Democrats if he was to deal successfully with what he saw as the larger and more immediate emergency of the Great Depression. Attempting to explain to civil rights leader Walter White why he would not support a proposed bill making lynching a federal crime, Roosevelt said: "I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Had I been permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But Iíve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairmen or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the antilynching bill, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just canít take that risk."
Nor did the Democratic president as party leader believe he could afford to alienate the South by pushing civil rights. When Harry Truman tackled the problem in 1948 by desegregating the military and calling upon Congress to outlaw the poll tax, make lynching a federal crime, outlaw segregated seating on vehicles involved in interstate travel, and create a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission to deal with job discrimination on the basis of race, it sparked a rebellion in the South. Many Democrats there refused to support Trumanís reelection bid, backing Strom Thurmondís Dixiecrat candidacy instead. FDR had realized a decade and a half before that any Democratic president who tackled the issue would have to pay an extremely high price politically. It was a price he had been unwilling to pay.
Congressional action in the field of civil rights seemed blocked as well during the 1930s and thereafter by the Conservative Congressional Coalition and successful use by Southern senators of the filibuster technique. Repeatedly during the first half of the twentieth century, the Congress refused to enact proposals to outlaw the poll tax and to make lynching a federal crime. If Congress refused to enact such legislation, it seemingly would never enact more sweeping measures until absolutely forced to do so.
By the 1940s, then, the federal judiciary represented the most likely branch of the government most to tackle the glaring problem of racial discrimination and inequity. This was especially true given the sweeping changes on the Supreme Court between 1937 and 1941. Though Rooseveltís court packing or reorganization scheme had failed to win legislative approval, FDR won the war with the Supreme Court. Vacancies on the high court allowed him seven appointments. Those individuals he placed on the court were liberal in their philosophy and much more open than their predecessors to the concept of judicial activism - using their power to overturn discriminatory laws and practices and thereby achieve social change.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court began
to reward the efforts of civil rights leaders who mounted legal challenges
in the courts to discriminatory laws and practices in the 1940s. Among
Most unfortunate, the courtís ruling met with intimidation and violence in numerous areas. The most publicized enforcement case occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas in the fall of 1957. The governor of Arkansas, Orville Faubus, directly challenged the Brown decision and federal supremacy by using Arkansas State Guard troops to prevent the ordered desegregation of Central High School. This placed President Dwight Eisenhower, who was known to be critical of ordered desegregation, in an untenable position. Eisenhower nationalized the Guard troops (bringing them under his control) and used them to enforce the desegregation order in response to Faubusí challenge. These troops would have to remain at the school the entire 1957-58 academic year to protect the ten black students who broke the color line at Central High.
The most widespread response to
the Brown decision was legal obfuscation - using the judicial system
to oppose and delay the implementation of desegregation orders. Many Southern
school districts were thereby able to delay the inevitable for years and
Legislative and Executive Action
Once the Supreme Court began taking action in the field of civil rights, the legislative and executive branches slowly followed.
authorized the Justice Department to intervene in voting rights cases initiated by minorities. However, the Justice Department couldnít initiate such cases and these cases would be tried before local (Southern) juries where conviction was far less likely than before federal juries.
allowed the Justice Department to initiate civil rights cases of all kinds in federal courts throughout the country
contained a public-accommodations clause guaranteeing the right of equal access to hotels, restaurants, and all similar public facilities. This was the outlawing of "Jim Crow" segregation in all public places throughout the country.
prohibited grants to or expenditures of federal funds on any segregated or racially discriminatory institution or activity
allowed the Justice Department to register voters independently of local registrars of voters
abolished all at-large multimember legislative districts at the federal and state levels (U. S. House of Representatives, State Legislatures)
outlawed at-large multimember local districts (city councils, school boards, etc.) if it could be shown that they had intentionally used the at-large system to artificially dilute minority voting impact
outlawed gerrymandering to artificially dilute minority voting strength (implementing the "one man-one vote" decision on a racial basis)
required states which had historically discriminated against minority voters to clear redistricting plans every ten years with the Justice Department before implementing them
Just as the New Deal response to the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II had brought about an environment in which significant civil rights progress could take place, a variety of factors combined in the mid-1960s to bring this period of sweeping progress to an end.