Tag Archive for 'Brown v. Board of Education'

“A Nation That Forgets God Will Fall”: Debating Engel v. Vitale

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was not “separate but equal” but instead an unconstitutional practice.  This decision infuriated many, especially in the South, who thought that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds.  Included among the disgusted was Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, an outspoken “Dixiecrat” (a member of the Democratic Party who supported segregation as well as socially conservative positions).

Members of Congress who opposed integration did not have the political power to pass any sort of Constitutional amendment to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling.  The frustration of Whitener and fellow Dixiecrats only intensified as integration began across the South.

Another ruling in 1962 further infuriated social conservatives throughout the country and led some to seek extraordinary solutions.  In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled in a six-to-one decision that school-sponsored prayer in public schools was unconstitutional.  Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, stated his objection to the prayer instituted by the state of New York thus:

We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty.

Justice Black’s constitutional logic may have been sound, but his rationale did not mollify the anger of social conservatives who balked at the Court’s perceived abridgment of the right to pray at any given location.

Petition regarding prayer in school, sent to Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, circa 1962. Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 144, Folder 4, blwms03004083.

Congressman Whitener received petitions from his constituents, including the document shown on the left in which several North Carolina residents ask for a constitutional amendment to re-legalize state-sponsored prayer in public schools. In part, the petitioners claimed that, “Our Nation was founded upon God and has prospered more than any nation in the world.  History has proven that a Nation That Forgets God Will Fall” (emphasis in original).  This document found a sympathetic ear in Congressman Whitener.  In fact, Whitener introduced one of many House resolutions that included a constitutional amendment overturning Engel v. Vitale. The proposed amendment that gained the most political traction was one officially introduced in 1964 by Congressman Frank Becker (R-NY).  The Becker Amendment read in part:

Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school . . .

Whitener’s constituents gathered their support behind the Becker Amendment. Religious groups such as Project America: International Christian Youth – USA sent a large number of form letters to Whitener’s office asking the congressman to support the Becker Amendment. One such letter is shown below:

Form letter, Cliff Wright to Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, circa 1964. Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 147, Folder 4, blwms04004006.

As one might expect, Whitener was a fervent supporter of the Becker Amendment. However, most of Congress did not share that position. A campaign against the amendment, ironically led by the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, effectively killed the amendment’s momentum.

Ultimately, it is true that Whitener’s opposition to integration and enthusiasm for prayer in school went against the policy of the nation. Yet both the Brown v. Board of Education and Engel v. Vitale decisions were crucial events in developing a social conservative movement characterized by a hybridization of small-government ideology with religiously influenced policy recommendations.

Furthermore, as part of the CCC Project, it is important to look not only at the successes of those who fought for civil rights. The context of those successes is, in part, the reaction of those who felt betrayed by their government and how that resentment changed American politics.

Sources
Encyclopedia of Civil Liberties (Becker Amendment)
The Oyez Project (Engel v. Vitale)
Justia U.S. Supreme Court Center (Engel v. Vitale)

Remembering Ruby Bridges

On November 14, 1960—52 years ago today—Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, when court-ordered integration in New Orleans, Louisiana, allowed her to enroll at William Frantz Elementary School. On the same day, three other African American students together integrated another previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans.

It had been more than six years since the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, but school districts across the South still resisted integration.

During the spring of 1960, Bridges’ parents had responded to requests from the NAACP for children to participate in the integration of the New Orleans Schools. After a test, six children were chosen to integrate the schools; two decided to remain in their old schools and three were transferred to integrate another school, McDonough No. 19. This left Bridges the sole African American student assigned to William Frantz Elementary. November 14 was set as the date when the four students would integrate the two schools.

That day, U.S. Marshals escorted six-year-old Bridges to her new school amid a large and loud crowd surrounded by police officers on horseback. It certainly was not a smooth transition at either school; white parents pulled their children out of school, and a new teacher had to be hired to teach only Bridges once all the other teachers refused. Bridges, at only six years old, endured constant hostility and threats.

The trouble was not confined to the school; Bridges’ father lost his job, and her grandparents, both sharecroppers, were turned off their land. Friends and family, though, both white and African American, supported Bridges and her family, protecting them and helping her father find a new job.

Fortunately, Bridges’ experience with her teacher, Barbara Henry, was excellent. She was Henry’s sole pupil that year, and Henry provided her not only with an education but with support. Bridges stayed at William Frantz Elementary through the sixth grade, and each year more African American students joined her.

She eventually returned to the school as a volunteer parent liaison after she took over guardianship of her deceased brother’s children. Bridges continues to travel around the country and observe how the civil rights movement is taught in schools. In 1999, she founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and respect.

Over the years, Bridges has been portrayed in multiple forms of media, such as the 1998 made-for-television movie Ruby Bridges and Lori McKenna’s song “Ruby’s Shoes.” Her first day of school was portrayed by Norman Rockwell in his 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

Bridges’ courage is still remembered today, more than five decades later. In 2001, President Clinton included Bridges among 28 recipients of the Presidential Citizens Medal (also included in the list were Irene Morgan, Constance Baker Motley, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth). A school district later dedicated an elementary school to her, and Tulane University granted her an honorary degree earlier this year.

The school Bridges integrated eventually underwent significant demographic changes, becoming mostly African American. Bridges and others successfully had the school recognized on the National Register of Historic Places; however, just a few months later, the school closed after Hurricane Katrina damaged the building. Bridges wasn’t going to watch this important landmark disappear, though; the Recovery School District refurbished the school. Bridges remains active in the school, advocating the teaching of history and focusing on community service and social justice. (To learn more about this, check out this Washington Post article.)

Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who volunteered to meet weekly with Bridges during her first year of school, later wrote a children’s book entitled The Story of Ruby Bridges.

To learn more, and to read Bridges’ memories, check out this article from CBS News and this PBS story. For newspaper coverage of that first day, check out this Associated Press article.

To learn more, check out Bridges’ children’s books, Through My Eyes (Scholastic 1999), Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story (Scholastic 2009), and Let’s Read About . . . Ruby Bridges (Scholastic 2003).

In this 2010 Washington Post article, Bridges shares her memories of her first days of school.

To learn more about the integration of New Orleans’ public schools, check out this collection from the Civil Rights Digital Library.

In her children’s book, Remember: The Journey to School Integration (Houghton Mifflin 2004), which includes numerous archival photographs depicting school desegregation, Toni Morrison presented a fictional account of the dialogue and emotions of the children who lived during this era.

To learn about racial and economic school resegregation, check out John Boger and Gary Orfield’s edited volume School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (UNC Press 2005).

To learn more about the fight for integration, check out Mark Tushnet’s The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press, 2005).

Lucy v. Adams and the Initial Integration of the University of Alabama

On October 10, 1955—57 years ago today—the Supreme Court in Lucy v. Adams unanimously ordered the University of Alabama to accept its first African American students.

The decision had been several years in the making. Autherine Lucy, a 1952 graduate of Miles College, went to court with Polly Anne Myers in July 1953, determined to gain entrance to the University’s graduate school. However, Myers was unmarried and pregnant at the time, and thus was ineligible for admittance under “moral codes” which then governed admissions. Lucy continued the lawsuit by herself.

A U.S. District Court found that denying the students’ applications violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After the case was appealed, it made its way to the Supreme Court. Lucy and Meyers were backed by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, with Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Arthur Shores as their legal representatives.

Finally, more than two years after the battle began and a year and a half after the famous decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional, the Court ordered the University to admit Lucy. However, the Court did not prevent the University from denying admittance to all other African American applicants.

Lucy attended her first classes the following February, but the success was temporary. Lucy’s admission incited threats from students and community members. After mobs threw rocks and eggs at her—necessitating a police escort—the University suspended her, citing concerns for her safety.

Although the NAACP took the matter to court, lawyers were unsuccessful, and Lucy was ultimately expelled from the school. Her admission, however, paved the way for sustained desegregation in 1963, when two African American students were enrolled. Lucy herself returned to the University three decades later, receiving a master’s degree in elementary education on the same day that her daughter received her degree in corporate finance.

Lucy’s story—and the initial failure of the University of Alabama to abide by the Supreme Court’s orders—is a distressing reminder that segregation and discrimination did not end with Brown v. Board of Education, but it is also a heartening tale of dedication and persistence in the face of hostility, threats, and violence.

To learn more about Autherine Lucy, check out this blog post about her first day at the University, and this blog post about her graduation in 1992. For a brief history and photos, check out this page from the University of Alabama’s web site.

Armando G. Hernandez’s article in the SAGE Encyclopedia of African American Education offers a wonderful summary of the legal battle.

Several years later, when two more students tried to enroll at the University of Alabama, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium, attempting to prevent their enrollment. President Kennedy ordered Wallace to cease and desist—but it took more than four hours before Brigadier General Henry Graham of the National Guard enforced the order, allowing James Hood and Vivian Malone to register at long last and forever integrating the University. To learn more about the final integration of the University in 1963, check out this blog post, as well as E. Culpepper Clark’s The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama (Oxford University Press 1995).

To view a timeline of the struggle for educational equality, check out this page from Harvard@Home.

On This Day: Cooper v. Aaron

On September 12, 1958—54 years ago today—the Supreme Court in its landmark case Cooper v. Allen ruled that the states (in this case, Arkansas) were bound by the Supreme Court’s decisions, and therefore could not pass laws or constitutional amendments designed to negate the Court’s rulings.

Four years earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court had ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional—and then, in the 1955 Brown II decision, the Court had ordered school districts to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”

The integration orders met resistance in many states, including Arkansas, where the legislature (supported by the governor) passed laws and even constitutional amendments outlawing integration.

In September 1957, the world watched as nine African American students, escorted by more than 1,000 armed soldiers, attended their first day of school in Little Rock, Arkansas. For the remainder of the school year, these nine African American students endured intimidation, bullying, and threats of violence, as well as physical and verbal attacks.

In February 1958, a local federal court approved the school board’s request to remove the African American students and postpone integration. Fought by the NAACP, the case made its way first to a Court of Appeals and then to the United States Supreme Court.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court ordered that the African American students be allowed to remain in school and that integration must move forward.

The constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color declared by this court in the Brown case can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted ‘ingeniously or ingenuously.’

Although the Court recognized that public education was primarily a state issue, it made clear that the U.S. Constitution was the “supreme Law of the Land.” Expanding on the reach and significance of the ruling, the Court stated that the Arkansas was bound by its orders and therefore, no legislation or amendment could be used to negate the opinion of the nation’s highest court.

Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the ‘supreme Law of the Land.’ In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as ‘the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,’ declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison… that ‘It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.’ This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. . . . No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it.

With this unanimous decision, the Court ordered the school district to admit African American students for the new school year. The significance of this ruling cannot be overstated. The Court made it clear that federal courts can and should enforce federal civil rights laws and court decisions, taking one more step in the fight for integration and equality.

To learn more about Cooper v. Aaron, check out this page from PBS and this page from the U.S. Department of State.  Readers will also be interested in Tony Freyer’s Little Rock on Trial: Cooper v. Aaron and School Desegregation (University Press of Kansas 2007).

To listen to the oral arguments, check out this page from Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Oyez Project.  To read the full text of the opinion, click here.

To read about the Little Rock Nine, check out this blog post. Readers might also be interested in Karen Anderson’s Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School (Princeton University Press 2009), John A. Kirk’s edited collection An Epitaph for Little Rock: A Fiftieth Anniversary Retrospective of the Central High Crisis (University of Arkansas Press 2008), and John A. Kirk’s edited collection Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis (University of Arkansas Press 2007).

On This Day: The Civil Rights Act of 1957

On September 9, 1957—55 years ago today—President Eisenhower signed into law the first piece of federal civil rights legislation since the 19th century era of Reconstruction.

It had been a long time coming. Civil rights activists had long been struggling for equality in every element of life from schooling to voting rights. Six months earlier, civil rights leaders had organized a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom to urge the federal government to fulfill promises laid out in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, with discrimination and segregation issues at the forefront of the American discourse, President Eisenhower took a stand.

Originally proposed by Attorney General Herbert Brownell, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was designed to protect voting rights, but also established the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Federal prosecutors were also empowered to use court injunctions against those who attempted to interfere with citizens’ voting rights.

In an effort to block the legislation, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond—a man famous for his discriminatory stands against integration and equality—set a record for the longest one-person filibuster in American history. Ultimately, though, the bill passed, and went to the President for approval.

It was a quiet signing, lacking the fanfare of other law enactments—after all, Americans were already tense as they watched a hotly contested integration process in Southern schools. (Two weeks later, President Eisenhower would send federal troops to protect African American students during the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.)

The Act was only the first in a series of laws designed to protect Americans’ civil rights, and indeed was by itself not very effective in increasing equality and providing African Americans with voting rights. However, it represented a significant step toward equality, paving the way for stronger legislation to come, including the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To view documents related to the Act, check out this page from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

To read the full text of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, check out this page from Teaching American History, a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.

For archival resources, check out this page from the Civil Rights Digital Library.

For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here. To learn more about federal civil rights legislation, check out Robert Mann’s When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968 (Louisiana State University Press 2007).

By the time the law was enacted, it had been 82 years since the last piece of federal civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Check out this blog post about the 1875 legislation.

To learn more, check out The 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and Its Continuing Importance (BiblioGov).

For more on President Eisenhower and the struggle for equality, check out David Nichols’ A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster 2008).

To learn about President Eisenhower’s relation with the media and the American public, check out Craig Allen’s Eisenhower and the Mass Media: Peace, Prosperity, and Prime-time TV (UNC Press 1993), available through UNC Press’s Enduring Editions Collection.

On This Day: Claymont High School Integrates

On September 4, 1952—60 years ago today—eleven African American students attended their first day of school at Claymont High School in Delaware. They were the first African Americans to legally integrate a white public school within the then-segregated states.

Twenty months earlier, eight African American students had applied for admission to the school. As expected, their request was denied on the grounds of the “separate but equal” doctrine, but attorney Louis Redding brought suit in court—and won. And soon, on September 3, 1952, the Claymont School Board voted to admit a dozen students.

The first day of integrated education went smoothly and without incident. However, the next day, Delaware’s state attorney general requested that Superintendent Harvey Stahl send the students home, pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Unwilling to back down, the students remained in school—with the backing of school officials and Stahl himself.

The desegregation efforts were successful—in fact, the case became an example of peaceful integration, and was included for argument in Brown v. Board of Education two years later—the same year that the first integrated class graduated from Claymont High School.

The fight for integration throughout the rest of the segregated states would last for years, but Claymont stood as a shining example of what could be achieved when discrimination and hostility were overcome in favor of equality and peace.

Today, the peaceful integration is commemorated by a historic marker placed outside Claymont High School.

To learn more, check out this page from Delaware’s state website.

For more on Delaware’s desegregation efforts, check out Brett Gadsden’s forthcoming book, Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, due out in October 2012).

To learn more about the case, check out this page from the Brown Foundation’s website. To view a photo of Louis Redding and Thurgood Marshall conferring during the Supreme Court trial, click here.

To read the April 1952 opinion ruling the separate facilities in Delaware unequal, check out this newspaper article.

To learn more about the Redding family’s influence on civil rights, check out Annette Woolard-Provine’s Integrating Delaware (University of Delaware Press 2003).

Desegregation efforts had been ongoing for many years. To learn more about the fight for integration, check out Mark Tushnet’s The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press, 2005).

Numerous books discuss the history of Brown v. Board of Education, including Waldo E. Martin’s Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), Robert Cottrol, Raymond Diamond, and Leland Ware’s Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 2003), and Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (Vintage, 2004).

For discussions about racial integration and educational policy, check out Integrating Schools in a Changing Society: New Politics and Legal Options for a Multiracial Generation (UNC Press 2011, edited by Erica Frankenberg and Elizabeth DeBray).

On This Day: Milliken v. Bradley

On July 25, 1974—only 38 years ago—the Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley restricted its earlier decision about school busing, now holding that outlying districts were exempt from aiding the desegregation of inner-city school systems.

Three years earlier, the Supreme Court in Swann v. Mecklenburg Board of Education had upheld busing programs designed to speed racial integration. By that time, it had been 17 years since the milestone Brown v. Board of Education had outlawed racial segregation in public education; the case set an important precedent for schools across the country as each went through its own desegregation process.

However, in 1974, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments surrounding the desegregation of the public schools in Detroit, Michigan. Its decision would have profound effects.

The NAACP sued Michigan Governor William Milliken, charging that the public school system was racially segregated as a result of a policy he had put into effect. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision that the system was indeed segregated, and ordered the state to adopt a desegregation plan which encompassed 54 outlying school districts.

The Supreme Court, however, decided 5-to-4 in favor of Milliken, holding the lower court’s order as impermissible and stating that “desegregation, in the sense of dismantling a dual school system, does not require any particular racial balance.”

Stating that there was no evidence that the outlying districts had deliberately engaged in segregation, the Court emphasized the importance of local control over the operation of schools. The decision read, in part:

The inter-district remedy could extensively disrupt and alter the structure of public education in Michigan, since that remedy would require, in effect, consolidation of 54 independent school districts historically administered as separate governmental units into a vast new super school district, and, since—entirely apart from the logistical problems attending large-scale transportation of students—the consolidation would generate other problems in the administration, financing, and operation of this new school system.

It was a controversial and complex decision. The five justices in the majority placed high importance on maintaining local control over schools; however, as the four justices in the minority feared, exempting suburban districts from the desegregation process made possible the continued “white flight” from cities to the suburbs.

Busing remained controversial throughout the country—and in fact continues to be a topic of discussion today, as school systems debate the important balance between shortening students’ commutes and maintaining racial, ethnic, and economic diversity.

To listen to the oral argument and opinion announcement, check out this page from The Oyez Project.

To read the full text of the Supreme Court opinion, check out this page from the Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

To learn more, check out Joyce Baugh’s The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy over Desegregation (University Press of Kansas, 2011).

To learn more about Governor Milliken, check out Dave Dempsey’s William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

To learn more about how student busing played out in another large city, check out Ronald Formisiano’s Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (UNC Press 2004).

For discussions about racial integration and educational policy, check out Integrating Schools in a Changing Society: New Politics and Legal Options for a Multiracial Generation (UNC Press 2011, edited by Erica Frankenberg and Elizabeth DeBray).

On This Day: The Fourteenth Amendment

On July 9, 1868—144 years ago today—the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, extending the liberties of the Bill of Rights to former slaves.

One of three Reconstruction Era amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment granted to all Americans the right to equal protection and due process of law, greatly expanding the protection of civil rights.

The Amendment stated, in part:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Although the passage of the Amendment certainly was monumental, a narrow interpretation was often taken in the ensuing decades, resulting in the continuation of restricted rights for African Americans. For years, citizens and politicians battled within the courts, in legislative arenas, and in American society at large to make these liberties truly a reality.

The Fourteenth Amendment was cited in Supreme Court cases involving interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia, 1967) and school desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).

More recently, the Fourteenth Amendment has been used to fight for women’s reproductive rights (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992) and to overturn legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals (Romer v. Evans, 1996).

To learn more—and to read the full text of the document—check out this page from the Our Documents initiative, a collaborative effort of National History Day, the National Archives and Records Administration, and USA Freedom Corps.

This site from the Library of Congress provides links to documents related to the passage and scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, including several newspaper articles available through Chronicling America.

To learn more, check out William Nelson’s The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine (Harvard University Press, 1998) and Michael Perry’s We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court (Oxford University Press, 2001).

To learn more about the three Reconstruction Amendments, check out this summary from the United States Senate’s website. The Our Documents initiative (cited above) also provides summaries and the full text of all three amendments: Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and Fifteenth Amendment.

For a chronological list and summary of Reconstruction Era policies, check out this page from the Digital History collection. For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, check out this page from Black Americans in Congress, hosted by the United States House of Representatives’ website.

To learn about one of the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment, check out Hans Trefousse’s Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (UNC Press, 1997).

Remembering Medgar Evers

On June 12, 1963—49 years ago today—white separatist Byron De La Beckwith shot and killed civil rights worker Medgar Evers, horrifying the American public and galvanizing the civil rights movement.

As the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, Medgar Evers was a vocal opponent of racial discrimination and a frequent victim of threats and violence. On June 12, he was shot in the back while walking from his car to the door of his house, where his wife and children were waiting for him. He died less than an hour later.

Although De La Beckwith was quickly apprehended, he was tried and acquitted twice in 1964, with hung juries both timesall-white juries, of course. More than two decades passed before further attempts at conviction were made. After the Jackson Clarion-Ledger uncovered documents that indicated official misconduct during the trial, Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter decided to retry the case—with a mixed-race jury this time.

Three decades after the crime, De La Beckwith was finally convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001.

A former soldier, Evers made lasting contributions to the civil rights movement, organizing sit-ins and voter registration campaigns and fighting for the enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education. His violent death shocked the nation, forcing Americans to recognize the hostility and violence faced by Southern African Americans and further mobilizing the struggle for equality.

To learn more, click here.

Click here to watch a video of UNC’s Minrose Gwin discussing her scholarly project, Mourning Medgar Evers.

To learn more about Medgar Evers, click here. Numerous books also discuss his life, work, and death, including Michael Vinson Williams’ Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (University of Arkansas Press, 2011) and Adam Nossiter’s Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers (Da Capo Press, 2002).

DeLaughter later published a book about the 1994 trial: Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (Scribner 2001).

There are also dozens of books available which provide insight into the struggles African Americans faced in Mississippi during this period. UNC Press offerings include Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale (2012) and Emilye Crosby’s A Little Taste of Freedom (2005).

On This Day: Wallace’s Stand and Alabama’s Long-Awaited Integration

On June 11, 1963—49 years ago today—in one of the most strikingly racist political displays in the nation’s history, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium, attempting to prevent the enrollment of two African American students.

James Hood and Vivian Malone arrived on campus to register for classes on June 11, 1963—more than nine years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregated public education unconstitutional. They met immediate resistance from Wallace, who vowed to physically block their enrollment.

Hood and Malone were not the first African Americans to attempt to integrate the University of Alabama. Seven years earlier, Autherine Lucy became the first African American student to attend the University. However, her time at the University was cut short after violence and threats against her ultimately gave the University an excuse to expel her.

Now, seven years later, Hood and Malone sought lasting integration—and Wallace was determined to prevent it.

Wallace’s speech that day was nothing short of hateful and discriminatory. Ironically, he used the rhetoric of constitutional rights to argue against integration—against a right which all American citizens were due. He argued, in part:

I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government. I claim today for all the people of the State of Alabama those rights reserved to them under the Constitution of the United States. Among those powers so reserved and claimed is the right of state authority in the operation of the public schools, colleges, and Universities. . .

. . . It is the right of every citizen, however humble he may be, through his chosen officials of representative government to stand courageously against whatever he believes to be the exercise of power beyond the Constitutional rights conferred upon our Federal Government. It is this right which I assert for the people of Alabama by my presence here today.

In essence, Wallace argued that the constitution conferred on the states—not the federal government—authority over public schools. His anger over integration was certainly not a surprise; he had originally been elected to office as a segregationist, and had in his inauguration speech declared his support for “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

President Kennedy ordered Wallace to cease and desist—and still Wallace refused to move. It would be more than four hours until Brigadier General Henry Graham of the National Guard enforced the order, allowing Hood and Malone to register at long last and forever integrating the University. It was an historic moment in Alabama—one heavily reported in national and international media.

Hood and Malone’s enrollment paved the way for other African American students to attend the University; in fact, the next day, Dave Mack McGlathery was successfully registered at the Huntsville campus.

Malone, who became the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama in 1965, later worked for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Hood withdrew soon after enrollment, but later returned and earned a doctorate degree. And, many years later, Autherine Lucy returned, receiving a master’s degree in 1992.

To learn more, click here. Also, check out NPR’s story about the event, complete with an audio excerpt from Wallace’s statement, an interview with Malone, and a video.

For more on the integration of the University of Alabama, click here and here.

To read Wallace’s speech, click here. Wallace later had a change of heart regarding race relations and segregation; however, his actions at the University that day would follow him for the rest of his life.

To learn more, check out E. Culpepper Clark’s The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama (University of Alabama Press, 2007).