Where Scholars Disagree: How SCOTUS Influenced the Civil Rights Movement

Scholars are divided on the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in the civil rights movement. This blogger, a history teacher, explains why this debate is a valuable lesson.


In units on the civil rights movement, U.S. Supreme Court rulings in cases such as Brown v. Board are often central to student learning. But how many students also learn that scholars are divided on the role of the Supreme Court in the movement? Some, like Robert Jerome Glennon, have argued that “historians of the civil rights movement have not paid sufficient attention to the critical role played by the legal system in sometimes helping, other times hindering, but always affecting the pace and character of the struggle for racial equality.” At the same time, others, like Michael Klarman, maintain that “[c]ourt decisions … cannot fundamentally transform a nation. The justices are too much products of their time and place to launch social revolutions.”

It’s worth educators visiting this debate in the classroom. The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is an especially telling example of this historical problem and a good starting point for building students’ understanding. Specifically, it opens up questions about the different methods and impacts of court decisions and grassroots activism.

The boycott, which officially began shortly after Rosa Parks’ arrest in December 1955, lasted for 381 days, during which protesters actively sought concessions from the city of Montgomery. These protesters demonstrated collective resolve in the face of intense resistance. About two months in, though, the city showed no signs of giving in; in fact, opposition to the boycott was increasing. For example, on January 31, 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was bombed by white supremacists intent on sending a message to the emerging leader of the then-nascent civil rights movement. If anything, the boycott’s early success was more in rallying support—and ratcheting up opposition and fear—than in actually ending segregation.

Civil rights leaders realized they needed to mount a parallel legal challenge to segregation on the buses. With Rosa Parks’ case mired in the city court system, attorney Fred Gray filed Browder v. Gayle based on the experiences of four black Montgomery women—Aurelia Browder, Mary Louise Smith, Claudette Colvin and Susan McDonald—who had all been mistreated on city buses. The case worked its way through the court system. When the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs (in a ruling authored by Frank Johnson, who would later uphold the marching rights of Selma marchers), the city appealed, putting the case before the federal Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the boycott had grown into a mass movement, demonstrating, according to Klarman, “that tens of thousands of ordinary black southerners, united across class lines, were fed up with the racial status quo and were prepared to fight it, even at the cost of extreme personal hardship, incarceration, and threatened injury and death.”

But what actually transformed that status quo? For scholars, educators and students alike, considering this kind of cause-and-effect question means thinking carefully about the actual mechanisms of change as well as the goals and ambitions of the civil rights movement.

The bus boycott lasted over a year, and in that time, city officials repeatedly found ways to oppose the changes sought by reformers. Glennon has argued that there was, in the fall of 1956, “no evidence to suggest that the bus boycott was about to succeed in integrating the bus system, absent judicial intervention. On the contrary, it appears that the boycott would shortly have ended and that the buses would have remained segregated.”

In November 1956, Montgomery officials had filed for an injunction that would potentially eliminate the taxi and shuttle system altogether, an outcome that could derail—or even end—the boycott. In fact, on November 12, as boycott leaders waited anxiously for the ruling on the injunction, King rallied his followers to “believe that a way will be made out of no way.” He says in his memoir that he felt “the cold breeze of pessimism passing through the audience.”

And then, on November 13, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision in Browder v. Gayle, legally ending racial segregation on public transportation in Alabama. Boycotters rejoiced, and an early, important victory for the civil rights movement was secured. One month later, on December 20, the ruling became official when it was served to city officials.

The nature of that victory, however, is up for debate. Desegregating the buses was a vital step in ending Jim Crow, yet some have argued that the greater significance of the boycott was in providing shape and direction to the emerging civil rights movement. When reached for an interview, Klarman leaned more toward this latter view, observing that “the larger story of the Montgomery [B]us [B]oycott was the extraordinary mobilization of tens of thousands of blacks in the Deep South to protest, at great personal inconvenience, the practice of bus segregation.” He went on to suggest that “the benefits of that movement—educational, organizational, inspirational—would not have been lost had the buses not, in the end, been desegregated immediately.” Still, the ruling in Browder v. Gayle continued the deconstruction of the legal basis for segregation and provided a legal exclamation point on the boycott’s collective action success. 

It might be best to view these developments as intertwined and to teach them as such. The Court’s ruling was undoubtedly shaped by the growing clamor against Jim Crow, which was fomented by the strength and persistence of the boycott as well as the newly articulated vision of the civil rights movement leadership. At the same time, the Court’s ruling also legitimized the boycott and gave shape and direction to subsequent action—both social and legal—against Jim Crow. In the classroom, learning about these intertwined developments build students’ historical thinking skills and help them gain a deeper appreciation for the transformational power of the movement.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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