Civil Rights Movement History

Brown v. Board of Education (May)
Massive Resistance" to integration
White Citizens Council Formed (July)
Murder Trial of Ruby McCollum (Oct)
Citizenship Schools (1954-196?)


Brown v. Board of Education Decision (May)

See NAACP Builds the Case for preceding events.

Back in 1951, the NAACP and local parents and community groups began filing lawsuits against school segregation in various parts of the country as described in NAACP Builds the Case. In December of 1952, the United States Supreme Court consolidates 5 of the school desegregation cases under the name Brown v. Board of Education (see Students and Parents Challenge School Segregation).

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren reads the decision of the unanimous Court:

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does... We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

By ruling in favor of the plaintiffs the Supreme Court strikes down the "Separate But Equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson in regards to public education and mandates the desegregation of schools across America. But the decision does not explicitly overturn segregation in other areas such as public accomodations, "private" schools, housing, employment, government contracts, college admissions, and so on. Nor does it require immediate desegregation of public schools, or even desegregation by a certain date.

See "Massive Resistance" to Integration for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation


"Massive Resistance" to Integration

See Brown v. Board of Education for preceding events.

In the South and elsewhere, reaction to the Brown decision is swift and negative (in some cases violently so). Virginia is ruled by Senator Harry Byrd's political machine, and he issues a "Southern Manifesto" calling for "Massive Resistance" to school integration (and, by implication, rigid maintenance of all other forms of racial segregation).

[Note that Senator Harry Byrd was not related to the equally segregationist Senator Robert Byrd of neighboring West Virginia.]

Byrd's "Massive Resistance" strategy to maintain school segregation is widely adopted by school boards and state governments throughout the South, and by 1956 more than 100 southern office-holders have signed the manifesto. In Virginia, for example, the 1954 the Democratic Party gubernatorial campaign platform resolves that, "The state [will] oppose it [integration] with every facility at our command, and with every ounce of our energy."

The details of "Massive resistance" to school integration vary from state to state and county to county. In Virginia, for example, it includes:

Alabama Attorney General (and later Governor) John Patterson explained it this way:

We concluded then that we could never win the legal battle, that you could not square a dual [school] system of that sort under our federal Constitution. ... and that the best thing for us to do would be to never admit that, of course, but to fight a delaying action in the courts. ... delay every way we could do it. ... avoid having a decision made in court, if possible, at all costs, anticipating that the decision would be against us. Now this was our approach. ... so that they'd [Blacks] have to take us on, on a broad front, in a multitude of cases. — John Patterson. [4]

Virginia's Prince Edward County (site of the Student Strike at Moton High that helped initiate the desegregation movement) becomes a model for "Massive Resistance" on the part of the white authorities. A new and larger Moton High School is built in 1954 in an effort to show that the school board is providing "Separate But Equal" facilities to Blacks. The old Moton High buildings are converted to a Black elementary school. This ploy, the new state laws, and the Supreme Court's 1955 "All Deliberate Speed" decision, allow Prince Edward county to maintain segregation for more than a decade.

See "All Deliberate Speed" Decision for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation


White Citizens Council Formed (July)

In response to Brown v. Board of Education white business leaders and politicians organize the White Citizens Council (WCC) to defend white-supremacy, resist integration, and supress all efforts on the part of Blacks to improve their lives. The WCC is an organization of those with money or influence — planters, law makers and public officials, bankers, businessmen, managers, doctors, lawyers, and ministers. Many WCC members and leaders have a direct economic interest in keeping Blacks "in their place" (poor, exploited, and powerless).

by the 1950s the language of white supremacy was gradually softening in some quarters, becoming less shrill in an attempt to gain respectability for racism. Phrases like "states' rights" and concepts such as the need to protect "constitutional liberties" from communist subversion and federal interference were becoming stand-ins for raw racist rhetoric. ... The Citizens' Council — a new tool for white supremacy — was born in Indianola, Mississippi, on July 11, 1954 ... just two months after the Brown decision. The council began "pursuing the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary," urging "concerned and patriotic citizens to stand together forever firm against communism and mongrelization." ... They were middle-class businessmen and managers. ... Their agenda was to force anyone, white or black, who dissented from white supremacy and racial segregation back into line or out of the state. — Charles Cobb. [5]

Originating in Mississippi, the WCC quickly spreads across the South. Within a few years it has over 100,000 members South-wide. Its local councils use economic retaliation such as firings, evictions, and foreclosures, public condemnation, economic boycotts, legislative lobbying, and legal strategems to preserve the "southern way of life." While Blacks are the main focus of council attacks, any whites who accept integration or refuse to retailiate against Blacks are also targeted. As is anyone associated with a trade union regardless of race.

What happened in Yazoo City, Mississippi, following the formation of the Citizens' Council is typical of what began to happen everywhere across the South. Fifty-three people in Yazoo City had signed a petition in favor of school desegregation. The Citizens' Council arranged for the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all fifty-three to be published in the local newspaper as a full-page advertisement. The last line of the ad read, "Published as a public service by the Citizens' Council of Yazoo City." All the people whose names were listed in the advertisement lost their jobs or had their credit cut off. In Clarksdale, the names of those petitioning for school desegregation in that town were published in the Clarksdale Press Register along with the editorial comment, "These people are the agitators and troublemakers." — Charles Cobb. [5]

In 1985, former leaders of the White Citizens Council found the "Council of Conservative Citizens," an organization that today still follows the reactionary, white-supremecy tradition of the White Citizens Councils.

For more information:
Web: White Citizens Council


Murder Trial of Ruby McCollum

Back in 1952, Ruby McCollum, a Black woman, shot her white doctor who was also a prominent politician. At her 1954 trial in Live Oak FL — a small town half way between Jacksonville and Tallahassee — she testifies that he raped her and forced her to bear his child. And that he continued to force sex on her, and that she was pregnant with his second child at the time of the murder. She also testifies that her husband had threatened to kill her if she bore another child by the doctor, and the doctor had threatened to kill her if she had an abortion. Her trial is covered by Zora Neal Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier, and William Bradford Huie later writes a book about the case. Through her testimony, McCollum publicly exposes the southern practice of what comes to be known as 'paramour rights.'

Paramour rights refers to the assumption that white men have a 'right' to use Black women for sex regardless of whether or not they are willing, or married to someone else. Back in slavery times, Black women were the sexual property of white slave owners. After the Civil War, that attitude continued.

At the time of Ruby's trial, many white men who have some position of economic, social, or judicial power over a Black woman assume their power includes paramour rights. This practice is well known in southern white communities who, through their silence, condone it. When McCollum testifies in her 1954 trial that her doctor had forced her to bear his child, and then threatened to kill her if she refused to bear him a second child, she exposes the practice and forces the community to admit what they have known all along.

The judge in the 1954 murder trial is a close friend and pall-bearer of the white doctor. Ruby McCollum is convicted and sentenced to death. The conviction is later overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. Rather than retry her — which would again raise the paramour rights issue — a court declares her 'insane' and incarcerates her for for many years in a mental institution.

For more information:
Books: Ruby McCollum Murder Trial
Web: Ruby McCollum Murder Trial for web links.


Citizenship Schools (1954-196?)


Started by Esau Jenkins on Johns Island, SC, in 1954 with the assistance of Septima Clark and a $1500 loan from the Highlander Center, Citizenship Schools initially focus on teaching adults to read so they can pass the voter-registration literacy tests. The first school is hidden from whites in the back room of a small Black-owned, grocery store. Mrs. Clark's cousin, Bernice Robinson, is hired as the first teacher.

I'd say just about the most important thing we did in the movement was start the citizenship schools. In 1956 Septima Clark, our director of education, and Esau Jenkins, a bus driver on John's Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, started coming to Highlander and bringing some neighbors with them. It was a poor kind of place, most people earning their living by picking cabbage from morning to night. The people there wanted to vote — but they couldn't read and write. They asked Highlander to help them set up a school. We helped them raise the money, and gave whatever help we could, but everything about the school was up to the people. They found Bernice Robinson, a beautician, to teach. Bernice and her "students" worked out a curriculum. They had to teach it all in only two months, January and February, between the picking and the planting seasons. They started by learning to read and write their names, then the words to hymns they knew. They learned to hold a pencil and read and write stories about the work that they did; finally, they tackled the Constitution, and the actual registering to vote. — Myles Horton, Highlander Center. [3]

The school uses voter registration forms and newspapers as reading material and the students write about their daily lives. Soon it expands into economic empowerment starting with how to fill out money orders, use a bank account, understand payment slips, and operate a sewing machine. School discussions focus on ideas such as — citizenship, democracy, justice, power, and the right to vote. Out of the first class of 14 adult students (three men, eleven women), 8 manage pass the voter-registration test.

With Mrs. Clark recruiting new teachers and training them at the Highlander Center, Citizenship Schools steadily expand across the isolated Sea Islands along the coasts of South Carolina & Georgia. Most of the teachers are unpaid volunteers who hold classes in the evenings and on weekends. It takes three years for the white power-structure to discover the hidden schools and figure out how so many Blacks are managing to register, and by that time the program is too deeply entrenched to suppress. By 1961 there are 81 teachers running 37 schools on the islands and nearby mainland, a significant number of Blacks have registered to vote, and they have started a credit union, nursing home, kindergarten, and low-income housing project.

As the Freedom Movement heats up across the South, Tennessee authorities attempt to close down Highlander Center because of its support for integration and economic justice. In 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conferance (SCLC) agrees to take the Citizenship Schools under its wing so that if Highlander is destroyed the program will still survive. Mrs. Clark leaves Highlander and becomes part of the SCLC staff.

With the financial and organizational backing of SCLC, the Citizenship Schools expand across the South. Eventually, close to 10,000 teachers are trained — most of them unpaid volunteers — and as many as 200 schools conduct classes in churches, kitchens, and beauty parlors, on front porches, and beneath shady trees in the summertime and around wood-burning stoves in the wintertime. Under the innocuous cover of adult-literacy classes, these schools teach democracy and civil rights, community leadership and organizing, practical politics, and the strategies and tactics of resistance and struggle.

The basic purpose of the Citizenship Schools is discovering local community leaders. [It is important that the schools have] the ability to adapt at once to specific situations and stay in the local picture only long enough to help in the development of local leaders ... It is my belief that creative leadership is present in any community and only awaits discovery and development. ... The teachers we need in a Citizenship School should be people who are respected by the members of the community, who can read well aloud, and who can write their names in cursive writing. These are the ones that we looked for ... We were trying to make teachers out of these people who could barely read and write. But they could teach. — Septima Clark [1][2]

The fundamental connection between the Citizenship Schools and leadership development for the broader Freedom Movement is revealed in the evaluation questions they use to measure their progress:

Has the graduate been instrumental in getting others to vote?
Has he or she signed petitions?
Attended community meetings?
Engaged in demonstrations?
Become more effective in community action?
Worked for an unselfish cause?

And the proof of their success is that in the years to come, many of the Movement's adult leaders — most of them women — including Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray and hundreds of unsung local activists in Black communities across the South attend and teach Citizenship Schools, and in so doing they lay the secret foundation of the mass community struggles to come.

Years later, after more than a decade of hard brutal struggle, Hartman Turnbow, the courageous local leader in Holmes County Mississippi, said of the Citizenship School teachers:

Anybody hada just told me 'fore it happened that conditions would make this much change between the white and the black in Holmes County here where I live, why I'da just said, 'You're lyin. It won't happen.' I just wouldn't have believed it. I didn't dream of it. I didn't see no way. But it got to workin' just like the citizenship class teacher told us — that if we would redish to vote and just stick with it. He says it's gon' be some difficults. He told us that when we started. We was looking for it. He said we gon' have difficults, gon' have troubles, folks gon' lose their homes, folks gon' lose their lives, peoples gon' lose all their money, and just like he said, all of that happened. He didn't miss it. He hit it ka-dap on the head, and it's workin' now. It won't never go back where it was. — Hartman Turnbow. [4]

For more information:
CRMVets: Citizenship and Liberation Books:
    Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement
    Echo in My Soul
Web: Citizenship Schools


1954 Quotation Sources:

1. Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, Septima Clark, Cynthia Brown.
2. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Charles Payne.
3. Everybody Says Freedom, Pete Seeger & Bob Reiser.
4. My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, Howell Raines.
5. This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles Cobb.



© Bruce Hartford
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