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The UNITED STATES and EQUAL RIGHTS, 1947-65 (1 of 5)

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The United States and Equal Rights, 1947-65

First steps, to 1956 | Fledgling Integration, 1956-63 | Human Rights, New Divisions and Riots in 1964 | Malcolm X | Los Angeles in the Summer of 1965

First steps, to 1956

In major league baseball in 1947 Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Another step in integration came in July 1948, when President Truman desegregated the military. The Korean War (1950-53) became the first war that Americans fought with integrated units.

In the 1950s, people opposed to integration were watching black rise in the world of popular entertainment. Count Basie and Nat King Cole were popular. In the mid-fifties Harry Belafonte became a popular singer. Fats Domino was putting songs in the top 40. Little Richard began singing for young white audiences. So too did Big Mama Thorton, with her lively song "Hound Dog." In 1957 Chuck Berry was playing music that appealed to young whites. In the fifties, Diana Ross and the Supremes were on top in music. Eartha Kitt was popular. And Sidney Poitier was a rising movie star. Stars like Nat King Cole and their families experienced bigotry in their white Hollywood, California, neighborhood. And regarding the new popularity of rock and roll, a few older whites were upset with Elvis Presley because he was helping to make popular what they called "nigger music." At the driveway of a few luxurious Beverly Hills homes the little statues of a black boy horse groom were soon to disappear. A shift in attitude by whites toward black people had begun, as had battles for civil rights for so-called people of color.

In 1954, a class action suit on behalf of thirteen families in Topeka, Kansas, challenged school segregation. A third-grader, Linda Brown, was forbidden to go to school four blocks away from her home. She had to ride a bus to an all black school five miles away. In a case to be known as Brown versus the Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Many whites in the South believed that doing away with segregation in the schools would lower school standards and demean them. The battle over school integration in the South was about to begin.

But first a forty-two year old woman in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks, created a stir that was also to make its way to the Supreme Court. In December, 1955, Parks was on her way home from her job as a seamstress in a department store. She was riding in the middle of a bus, in seats designated for whites. A man boarded the bus and exercised his privilege as a white by asking that blacks in the middle of the bus move to the rear so he could take a seat. The blacks around Parks complied, but Parks refused to move. She was tired. She was also a civil rights militant, part-time activist for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and she drew strength from her religion. The bus driver called the police, who came and took Parks to the police station, where she was fingerprinted and jailed. She called an NAACP lawyer. The city of Montgomery fined Parks, and her lawyer advised her not to pay. Encouraged by the Supreme Court's ruling on segregation in public schools, the NAACP wanted to test the constitutionality of segregation in public bussing.

In Montgomery, a committee of African-Americans formed to support Parks, a number of them church leaders. They addressed the bussing issue and called themselves the Montgomery Improvement League. One of its members was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The year before, at the age of twenty-four, he had become the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

The Montgomery Improvement League convinced blacks to boycott the city's busses and use whatever alternative transportation they could find. In late February, three months after the arrest of Parks, the city indicted Dr. King, twenty-four other ministers and a hundred other blacks for conspiring to prevent the bus company from operating its business. Someone transformed himself into a terrorist by bombing King's home. King's wife and recently born daughter were there. Neither was injured. But it was the beginning of a revival of terrorism in the Deep South.

In early June, 1956, the US District Court ruled that racial segregation of Alabama city bus lines was unconstitutional. The bus boycott continued, and the bus company was suffering without the patronage of blacks. As with the Japanese in Hawaii, numbers were proving to be a point of strength. The Supreme Court weighed in and upheld the ruling of the US District Court. And, in December, the bus company relented. The bus boycott ended. On December 26, blacks and whites began riding the buses without forced segregation. The Montgomery Improvement League had demonstrated a winning strategy.

In January, 1957, there were more bombings, including three Baptist Churches and the home of a white minister – bombings that would fail to change the course of history.


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