Summary Objective 4

Students will evaluate the ways that a combination of legal, legislative and activist strategies in the late 1940s and 1950s for achieving political and social equality advanced the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Essential Knowledge

4.A. The movement for racial equality drew on a wide variety of tactics, including legal challenges to segregation, community organizing and direct action for securing civil rights. Southern Black communities were at the center of the more explicitly political challenge of the movement.

4.B. Using direct action, local groups organized boycotts and protests. One of the most famous of these was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This yearlong protest, beginning in December 1955 and organized by a broad coalition, ultimately played a role in a Supreme Court decision mandating the desegregation of city buses.

4.C. The legal strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) culminated in a series of Supreme Court rulings that expanded rights for African Americans across the country, including rulings desegregating buses and successful challenges to laws that segregated schools and restricted voting.

4.D. The most famous legal victory of this era was the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools, striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson.

4.E. School segregation remains a significant problem today, and the legal strategy developed by the NAACP in the 1940s and 1950s is still being used to fight for well-funded, integrated schools in District Courts across the United States.

Related Resources

  • [4.A.] To consider emerging differences about tactics and strategies within the movement, students should learn about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its work challenging racial segregation in the courts. The Library of Congress offers a helpful overview of the organization’s work during and directly after WWII in the online exhibit NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom.
  • [4.A.] For an example of the NAACP’s legal strategy, read a letter from NAACP Secretary Walter White to NAACP members, dated May 20, 1946. In the letter, White solicited funds to support Irene Morgan, who was suing the state of Virginia for violating her civil rights on an interstate bus.
  • [4.A.] Students can compare the NAACP’s emphasis, under Walter White’s leadership, on legal challenges to segregation with the work of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which promoted direct action under the early leadership of James Farmer and Bayard Rustin. To learn more about CORE, review the online resources available through the SNCC Digital Gateway page Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which includes a student-friendly overview and links to several primary source documents.
  • [4.A.] The SNCC Digital Gateway archive offers a short biography and several primary source resources to help students grasp how activist Ella Baker’s work pushed the NAACP to focus on overall membership and the growth of Southern branches, paving the way for more direct action in the South.
  • [4.A.] For a sense of how activist leaders faced opposition, read the essay Medgar Evers,” available in the LFJ text library. For more on Medgar Evers, the Zinn Education Project’s short article May 20, 1963: Medgar Evers Speech on WLBT provides an excerpt of Evers’ speech weeks before he was murdered.
  • [4.B.] To better understand a story that’s often oversimplified, students can research the roles that a broad coalition of activists and organizations played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Educators can begin by listening to the Teaching Hard History podcast episode The Real Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
  • [4.B.] For more support teaching about Parks, educators can explore the Zinn Education Project lesson The Rebellious Lives of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” They can also watch the documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, available on Peacock.
  • [4.B.] While the boycott thrust Martin Luther King Jr. onto a national stage, it was also the work of a coalition of activists. Black women played key roles in organizing some of the most famous protests of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. To better understand this history, students can review a 1954 Letter Written From Jo Ann Robinson to Mayor W.A. Gayle,” in which the Montgomery Women’s Political Council president threatened the mayor with a bus boycott if African American riders did not receive fair treatment. And they can read the NPR story Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin to learn more about the 15-year-old girl who refused to vacate her seat nine months before the boycott.
  • [4.B.] For a better sense of the reality of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, students should consider the sacrifice and the organization required for a community to forgo public transportation for over a year. Civil Rights Movement Photographs from the Civil Rights Movement Archive include a number of images of the planning and execution of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • [4.C.] To understand legal challenges to discrimination, examine the difference between legally mandated discrimination and discrimination that existed in practice but was not necessarily ordered by law—the difference between de jure and de facto discrimination. To better recognize de facto segregation, students can review the July 1957 New York Times article Negro Sues City on School Zoning,” which details how Black women took legal action to confront de facto segregation in New York City’s public schools.
  • [4.C.] To learn about Aurelia Browder and the other plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that affirmed the desegregation of buses, read the LFJ article Browder v. Gayle.”
  • [4.C.] To examine the planning that led up to Brown v. Board of Education, review the National Archives resource Timeline of Events Leading to the Brown v. Board of Education Decision of 1954. Students can also review the Brown Foundation’s page Combined Brown Cases, 1951-54, which summarizes the five court cases the NAACP filed around the country as part of their legal strategy against segregation that were all combined by the court in Brown.
  • [4.D.] To better contextualize the importance of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, students can examine primary sources such as Separate Is Not Equal,” which includes photographs of segregated classrooms for students to compare. The National Archives’ Brown v. Board of Education page includes primary sources, teaching activities and background information to contextualize the ruling.
  • [4.D.] When teaching the complicated history of school integration, educators should be sure to address the resistance and resilience of Black educators facing racist systems of resource allocation and discuss the ways that integration negatively affected many Black teachers. Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” an episode of the Revisionist History podcast, is a good starting place for learning more.
  • [4.D.] Newly integrated schools did not provide welcoming spaces to African American students. To learn from those who lived through integration—and those who integrated schools— read a passage from the bell hooks memoir Bone Black, available in the LFJ text library.
  • [4.D.] Students can also review some of the oral histories collected by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative in Somebody Had To Do It: First Children in School Desegregation. Time magazine’s 2017 article ‘I Had a Right To Be at Central’: Remembering Little Rock’s Integration Battle includes a video and reflections from Carlotta Walls, who at 14 was one of the first students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • [4.D.] Students should know that Latine/x families also had to fight for desegregation in schools. They can review the District Court ruling in the 1946 case Mendez v. Westminster, available in the LFJ text library, or read about the case in the LFJ article Why Mendez Still Matters.” For more ideas on teaching Mendez, educators should refer to the accompanying Toolkit.” Finally, students can listen to a recording—or read the transcript—of StoryCorps: Fighting To Stay in School,” a conversation about the case between Sylvia Mendez and her sister Sandra Mendez Duran.
  • [4.E.] For an overview of segregation across the U.S. today—as well as an explanation of how later Supreme Court rulings made further support for integration less likely—students can read the New York Times opinion piece Linda Brown and the Unfinished Work of School Integration,” published shortly after Brown died in 2018.
  • [4.E.] For more on contemporary segregation, read and discuss the graphs in the Conversation article What School Segregation Looks Like in the US Today, in 4 Charts.”
  • [4.E.] To learn more about the ongoing legal work of the NAACP, particularly around education, visit the Legal Defense Fund’s Education webpage and explore “case spotlights.”

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