- Exploration & the Settlement of the Americas
- The Revolutionary War
- The Growth & Expansion of The Nation
- The Civil War & Reconstruction
- The Gilded Age & the Second Industrial Revolution
- World War I & The Roaring Twenties
- The Great Depression and The New Deal
- World War II
- The Cold War
- The Civil Rights Movement
GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Civil Rights Movement
As previously noted, the lives of African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War were wretched. The Jim Crow laws enshrined segregation and humiliation as law, and the majority of the country’s blacks lived in agricultural poverty in the south, working as tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Blacks and whites lived, shopped, prayed, and traveled in segregated facilities as the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court in 1896 allowed “separate but equal” facilities (though facilities for “colored people” were never “equal” was the law of the land).
Blacks in urban areas lived in segregated neighborhoods and were excluded from many employment opportunities. In the North, there was not formal segregation, but de facto (“in fact, if not in law”) segregation ruled black-white relations. Most higher educational opportunities were closed off to blacks, and segregation was evident in elementary and high schools and many industries.
During World War I and World War II, African-Americans had more employment opportunities, but as soon as those wars were over, defense-related jobs were often eliminated, and of those jobs that remained, blacks were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
Since the Civil War, African-Americans in the Army served in segregated units commanded by white officers. Their exploits were no less heroic — and they fought and died just like any other soldier — but the mixing of black and white troops was believed to be bad for morale and fighting ability. Only in the Navy did black and white men serve together.
Early Events in the Civil Rights Movement
In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces by an executive order (as commander-in-chief, he could do this without consulting Congress). White officers and enlisted men grumbled, but integration was complete by the early 1950s and — contrary to what critics had said — unit morale and cohesion (togetherness) did not fall apart.
The 1948 Democratic Party platform also called for civil rights legislation (laws) and new federal anti-lynching laws. These met with tremendous resistance from Southern lawmakers, who still made up a sizeable chunk of Congressional leaders.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Oliver Brown was fed-up. A father and pastor in Topeka, Kansas, his nine-year-old daughter could not go to the “white” school only six blocks from home, and instead had to cross a train yard in order to attend the “colored” school almost two miles away. When he tried to enroll the child in the all-white school, he was turned away.
With the help of the legal team of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Brown and other parents brought a lawsuit, claiming that segregated schools violated the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant African-American attorney working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued that “separate but equal” could never be equal. In addition, he and he team introduced evidence from psychological studies that showed the harm segregation caused children. A number of studies indicated that black children were taught to feel inferior and that “white” was inherently “better.”
Marshall’s argument found favor among the members of the Supreme Court, which was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was strongly committed to fairness and justice in American society. In a 9-0 vote in May 1954, the Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. The court noted the key role of education in modern life:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and
local governments… . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may
reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity
of an education… . We come then to the question: Does segregation
of children in public schools solely on the basis of race…deprive
the children of minority groups of equal educational opportunities?
We believe that it does.
Formal segregation was dead. But changing peoples’ attitudes does not come overnight, and there was great resistance to the decision in the South. Politicians there swore they would mount “massive resistance” to court orders to desegregate their schools and other facilities.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1955)
Montgomery, Alabama’s public bus system was still segregated after the Brown decision. Whenever the bus was full and more white people got on, African-Americans had to “move to the back of the bus.” One cold evening, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was removed from the bus and arrested.
To combat the systematic racism and show the power of unity, the black community of the city, led by a charismatic young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a boycott (a movement pledged to not use or buy a product or service) of the public bus system. Using borrowed cars, carpools, and second-hand school buses, they organized a rival transportation system, depriving the public buses of passenger revenue. After a year, the city dropped its segregation law and the buses became integrated. Dr. King’s name had become synonymous with nonviolent protest.
The Crisis in Little Rock (1957)
In Little Rock, Arkansas, the school system remained segregated almost three years after the Brown decision. When the city’s board of education finally worked out a desegregation plan, nine African-American students attempted to enroll in Central High School.
The governor of the state would have none of this, and posted National Guard soldiers (state militia) around the school to prevent the entry of the “Little Rock Nine.” When he finally relented under orders from a court, mobs of angry whites blocked the school entrance.
President Eisenhower — normally a very cautious politician who had a go-slow approach on civil rights — had to act. He sent in federal troops to protect the students and maintain order. While many in the South continued to resist, the tide of history had turned in favor of integration.
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The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that