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Reading 1: School Desegregation and the NAACP's Role
As part of the segregation and subordination of African Americans, their schools at the turn of the 20th century were grossly under-funded. This was true even though a third of all school age children in the United States were African American. In the South, African Americans received approximately 12 percent of the funding allocated for public education. It was not uncommon to have a church basement or vacant store serve as a “schoolhouse.” The general attitude toward educating African Americans was in line with a statement made by A. A. Kincannon, Mississippi’s Superintendent of Education in 1899, who stated that “our public school system is designed primarily for the welfare of the white children of the state and incidentally for the negro children.”1 However, African-American churches attempted to bridge the gap in educational facilities for African-American students by founding and funding elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges.
The 1930s marked the initial thrust at dismantling segregation through the courts. White progressives and black civil rights activists founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, in 1909. This organization worked to assure legal rights for African Americans and to improve race relations. The organization’s favored means by which to improve the conditions of a segregated society was through the court system. Therefore, the NAACP established the Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDEF) as a separate entity in 1939 as a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation. Its purpose was to handle the NAACP’s legal activities, particularly cases related to education. The main legal tactic against segregated schools was based upon the fact that equalizing and maintaining two distinct school systems, one for whites and another for blacks, would prove too expensive for local governments to support.
It was not until after World War II when a substantial number of African Americans were exposed to “the democratic and egalitarian rhetoric of the wartime and postwar years,” that many started to push for change in the status quo.2 A sizeable number of African Americans from southern cities moved north during the war in search of well paying defense jobs. For the first time, a solid black working class developed in many major American cities. During the war the NAACP and other groups promoted the “Double V” campaign which sought both victory abroad against fascism and victory at home against racial inequalities. Experiencing more freedoms and equal treatment abroad during the war, black soldiers were motivated to work toward integration at home after their return.
It was not long after the end of the war that African Americans advocating for civil liberties made noteworthy strides toward the equalization of educational facilities. Between 1933 and 1950 the focus of NAACP lawyers was the “desegregation of graduate and professional schools, the equalization of teacher salaries, and the equalization of physical facilities at black and white elementary and high schools.”3 Progress was made in their attacks at the professional and graduate school level with the cases of Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The NAACP legally attacked school segregation using the negative sociological implications of segregating the races--a tactic used in 1950 by two cases finally appearing before the Supreme Court. In regard to the Sweatt case, Chief Justice Fred Vinson acknowledged that unequal educational facilities for African Americans violated the mandates set forth in the 14th Amendment. He also agreed that whites received a superior education at the University of Texas Law School by having:
“to a far greater extent [than the state’s new law school for blacks] those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school. Such qualities…include reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige.”4
Chief Justice Vinson furthered this conclusion in the McLaurin case by acknowledging that the separation of George McLaurin within the University of Oklahoma “handicapped” him “in his pursuit of effective graduate study.” He concluded that: “Such restriction impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussion and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession.”5 As a result the Supreme Court ruled in both cases for full and equal admission to the previously all-white institutions. These landmark decisions set the stage for the successful overturn of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that was the legal benchmark by which African-American students were denied access to an equal college level education.
The NAACP was now confident in their continued fight against unequal educational facilities. At this point Thurgood Marshall, the leading NAACP lawyer, called a conference with other lawyers to decide how to conduct an all-out attack on segregated educational facilities. Marshall proclaimed at the end of the meeting: “We are going to insist on non-segregation in American public education from top to bottom – from law school to kindergarten.”6 As a result of this meeting, the NAACP reaffirmed their resolve in the fight against segregated education. The organization passed a resolution that declared that all new cases addressing unequal education would strive for “education on a non-segregated basis and that no relief other than that will be accepted.”7 The NAACP’s resolution culminated in the five school desegregation cases that were eventually combined into one, Brown v. Board of Education, the case that ultimately overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.
Questions for Reading 1
1. How did the African-American community deal with the inequalities their children had to face to receive an education?
2. How did the NAACP decide to fight against segregation? What other organization was established as a result?
3. What important historical event motivated African Americans to fight for their civil rights? Why? Explain your answer.
4. What was the major focus of the NAACP lawyers between 1933 and 1950? How did they achieve their goals? What did the judges rule? Why?
5. What historic court case did Brown v. Board seek to overturn? What are the details of this earlier case? If needed, refer to Setting the Stage.
Reading 1 was complied from Susan Cianci Salvatore, Waldo Martin, Vicki Ruiz, Patricia Sullivan, and Harvard Sitkoff, Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States Theme Study, Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2000; Ralph E. Luker, Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement (Lanham: MD, The Scarecrow Press, Inc.), 1997. Mark Bauerlein at. alia., Civil Rights Chronicle: The African-American Struggle for Freedom (Lincolnwood, Illinois : Legacy Publishing), 2003. Flavia W. Rutkosky and Robin Bodo, “Howard High School,” (Wilmington, Delaware) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2004 .
1 Quoted in Susan Cianci Salvatore, Waldo Martin, Vicki Ruiz, Patricia Sullivan, and Harvard Sitkoff, Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States Theme Study ( Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2000), 28.