American Civil Rights Movement

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The 1950s was a decade characterized by the civil rights movement and its fight for inclusion within society. As the new decade started, segregation under the legal system was still considered constitutional. In 1954, segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court based on their ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case. The Supreme Court’s decision was declared the law of the land, yet they had a lack of ability to enforce it. It was up to society whether federally mandated desegregation would be truly enforced.

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Southern States strongly resisted it and attempted to overturn the ruling through a declaration known as the “Southern Manifesto”. The Southern regions strong segregationist views challenged the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. The Supreme Court’s power continued to be tested when Little Rock, Arkansas refused to allow African American students to attend a public school. President Eisenhower was required to step in and enforce the law in Arkansas in order to protect the Supreme Court’s decision and its legitimacy. The Supreme Court’s power was challenged by Southern efforts to overturn their decision on segregation, however, President Eisenhower reinforced the courts legitimacy by endorsing the court’s decision. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling and Eisenhower’s national address on Little Rock both supported the civil rights movement, while the “Southern Manifesto” was a strong counter to the movement.

One of the biggest legal assaults on the Jim Crow Laws came on May 17th, 1954 when the Supreme Court announced its decision regarding the Brown v. Board of Education case. The Brown v. Board of Education was a combination of a few cases that involved students being denied access to all white schools. The plaintiffs argued that this denied access to public schools violated the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court lead by Justice Earl Warren concluded that segregation in public schools violated the equal protection laws that are secured by the 14th Amendment. Chief Justice Warren read out, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “”separate but equal”” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. Not only was the desegregation of public schools found unconstitutional but the Plessy v. Ferguson case and the doctrine of “separate but equal” was overturned. The overturning of the legal order of the Jim Crow laws was a step towards a more equal race relationship in the South between whites and African Americans.

Chief Justice Earl Warren was a very important part of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case. In the past he had been pro Japanese Internment camps, however with this case he stood firmly that segregated schools were unconstitutional and that Plessy v. Ferguson was the wrong ruling. Throughout the Supreme Court’s history, the decisions made usually reflected a lack of desire to provide African Americans with full rights and equality. For example in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court essentially allowed a form of slavery to continue through saying segregation was constitutional and they allowed the Jim Crow laws. The Brown v. Board of Education decision was one of the first times a court had decided in favor of African Americans rights and the court ruled unanimously on the case. This is all contributed to Chief Justice Earl Warren who was a large advocate for equality and fairness. As a result he strongly believed that segregation was one of the biggest problems of the time and needed to be ended because under constitutional everyone should be protected equally. For example, Warren overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in order to keep the Supreme Court’s legitimacy as a court that stands for equality and democracy. The Warren Court would come to be known as one of the most liberal courts in history. The legal order had been changed, but it was up to the Southern Governments to enforce the new social and racial arrangements.

Southern society refused to enforce the new federally mandated desegregation laws. In March 1956, almost every congressman in the South signed the “Southern Manifesto” in an attempt to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. The manifesto was an attempt by Southern governments to put the legitimacy of the Supreme Court into question. It stated that the Supreme Court ruling was incorrect because no where in the Constitution was education mentioned. The manifesto stated, “The original Constitution does not mention education. Neither does the 14th Amendment nor any other amendment. The debates preceding the submission of the 14th Amendment clearly show that there was no intent that it should affect the system of education maintained by the States”. The Southern congressmen who drafted the manifesto clearly were extreme segregationists due to their strong disagreement with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. Yet the Southern congressmen critiqued the Supreme Court’s legitimacy on the grounds of legality rather than using their own personal moral views on the desegregation law. It is believed the Southern Congressmen crafted the manifesto using legal arguments and straying from racial reasoning in an attempt to appeal to the Northerners. Testing the court’s legitimacy on the basis of a well crafted legal argument would go over better with the rest of the country then using a racist argument. That is why the Southern congresses critiqued the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, on the grounds they did using the Constitution to oppose the court. While the “Southern Manifesto” challenged the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, it was state governments actions that questioned the courts lack of power to enforce.

Legally through the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education, segregation of public schools was declared unconstitutional and illegal. Even with these laws, Southern states and their governments were not enforcing them. Southern resistance was inevitable and expected however it took until the Little Rock situation for President Eisenhower to take charge and enforce the new desegregation laws in Little Rock. In 1957, nine African American students were admitted and enrolled into Little Rock Central High School. When they attempted to enter the building, they were prevented from entering the school by the Arkansas National Guard. This was called on by the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus. The city called out President Eisenhower, saying this action by the governor violated the law and constitution and that the president was ignoring the situation. On September 24th, 1957 President Eisenhower publicly endorsed school desegregation by addressing the Little Rock situation. He also sent the United States National Guard to move the Arkansas National Guard from the school. In his address to the nation he confronts the issue of the Southern states not enforcing the Federal Courts and as the Executive power he is stepping in to enforce the laws. He stated, “Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task and it becomes necessary for the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to use its powers and authority to uphold Federal Courts, the President’s responsibility is inescapable”. Eisenhower’s national address reinforced the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and its decision on school desegregation. It was only after President Eisenhower became involved on an extreme level that the laws were enforced.

The Southern states tested the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s federally mandated desegregation when many of the states governments did not enforce desegregation. President Eisenhower was also a large problem regarding the legitimacy of the new law because he refused to endorse it and speak on the court’s decision. One reason he didn’t strictly federally endorse the law is he didn’t want a big federal government presence. He stated in his address that the running of schools such as enforcing desegregation and the mechanisms at which states keep order is in the hands of the state governments, not the federal government. He felt strongly that it was the state’s power to maintain order and enforce the federal laws. He did not want a large federal government presence having to enforce these laws, as it is not the federal government job to do this within every state. His strong opinion on federal government involvement in school desegregation could be part of his lack of stance regarding civil rights. He was never extremely public on his personal views regarding civil rights. In his address he states, “Our personal opinions about the decision have no bearing on the matter of enforcement”. Eisenhower was never a strong civil rights supporter however he knew as the executive power that personal opinions regarding the matter had to be put aside and he had to carry out his job as executive power. He had a job as President to enforce the laws the Supreme Court passed in order to preserve the courts and federal government’s legitimacy. The South attempted to defeat the Supreme Court’s rulings, however President Eisenhower used his power to extend the court’s power and enforce the laws.

The 1950s ushered in a decade of social change and reform. At the start of the decade segregation was legal and race relations were extremely unequal politically, legally, and socially. African Americans struggle for equality was at the forefront of the United States problems. The Supreme Court in 1954 ruled segregation unconstitutional through its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. It was one of the first times the court had protected African Americans rights under the Constitution. The court’s decision was faced with extreme opposition in the South. The “Southern Manifesto” and the Little Rock Nine situation highlighted the South’s attempt to delegitimize the court’s decision and power. President Eisenhower’s address on the lack of segregation and his condemning of any state who didn’t listen to the Supreme Court’s ruling, gave power to the civil rights movement and African Americans rights. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation unconstitutional was a step towards equality for African Americans, however it was nowhere near really ending segregation. The struggle and fight for equality would continue on for many decades to come.

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American Civil Rights Movement. (2020, Aug 12). Retrieved from