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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

Black Americans to 1957 | Fledgling Integration, 1956-63 | Human Rights, New Divisions and Riots in 1964 | Malcolm X | Los Angeles in the Summer of 1965

Black Americans to 1957

One movement fighting for change did win victories, because of the tactics it employed and institutions in place. The victories were in the United States and against institutionalized segregation and other discriminations – with the Supreme Court a more powerful institution than local institutionalized racial discriminations.

An advance in integration – the first step in integrating major league baseball -- had come in 1947 when Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. More integration came when President Truman desegregated the military, Korea being the first war that Americans fought with integrated units. And in 1954 black men were receiving commissions as officers.

In the Fifties, blacks were rising 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." Nevertheless, a shift in attitude by whites toward black people was taking place. Meanwhile, battles over civil rights for blacks had begun.

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, and 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. And the battle over school integration in the South was about to begin.

But before the school integration battles began, 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, Rosa 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 if all the seats in the white section in the front of the bus were taken. A white man boarded the bus and asked that the 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., who, the year before, at the age of twenty-four, 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. Meanwhile, someone – who probably saw himself as a true-blue American -- 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 U.S. District Court ruled that racial segregation of Alabama city bus lines was unconstitutional. The bus boycott continued, and the bus company suffered 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 U.S. District Court. And, in December, the bus company relented. The bus boycott ended. And, 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. These bombings would be no more effective in changing the course of history than Germany's bombing of London, or Britain's bombing of Berlin.

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