Interracial Communities and Civil Rights Activism in Lawrence, Kansas, 1945-1948

By McCUSKER, Kristine M. | The Historian, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Interracial Communities and Civil Rights Activism in Lawrence, Kansas, 1945-1948


McCUSKER, Kristine M., The Historian


In April 1946 the University Daily Kansan, the student newspaper at the University of Kansas, published a series of ads called "Speaking for America." The ad campaign featured famous Americans who glorified the troops of all colors and religions who had won World War II and reminded their fellow Americans that the country's future success must include that mix. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, lauded the victorious "mixture of races, of creeds" whose efforts during World War II had brought American democracy to the world.(1) Comedian Bob Hope echoed Eisenhower's sentiments, telling Kansas students, "You know, one thing the guys overseas caught on to in a hurry was that a buddy's race, religion or ancestry just didn't matter."(2) Actress Judy Garland told students that "It takes all the people--black and white, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant, recent immigrants and Mayflower descendants--to make up America."(3) Each celebrity hoped, by reminding America that all of its citizens had contributed to the victory, to diminish the color line that continued to separate blacks from whites in American public and social spaces.

Students at a number of universities across the nation responded to this message. Universities and colleges had been particularly affected by the war, especially its draft, which targeted college-age men. That influence continued after the war ended when, between 1945 and 1948, the recent war experiences, postwar idealism, and a national rhetoric of democracy for all provided the impetus for a new civil rights movement on campuses nationwide. The emphasis on the war as a mission to bring cherished American ideals of democracy to other countries spurred some students, faculty, and college-town residents to confront the racial injustice existing in their own communities. Ad campaigns such as "Speaking for America" coupled with local discriminatory practices, reminded some at campuses around the country that continued segregation contradicted the war's ideals and rhetoric. In response, they set out to erase the color line and to make democracy a living, breathing entity in their postwar world.(4)

The University of Kansas and the community of Lawrence are illustrative of this larger, national movement. In Lawrence, reformers created two new groups, the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy (LLPD) and a local chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and embedded in them the values of this new era. The LLPD, an interracial group of ministers and college professors, constructed a platform rife with symbols of interracial cooperation, including an integrated nursery school and annual banquet, and used education as its primary tool to entrench those symbols in public places. At the same time, students involved in the interracial cooperative housing movement, supported by LLPD members, erased the color line in their social activities, in their political programs, and even in their living arrangements. Eventually they organized the local CORE chapter, which staged two sit-ins and a variety of other direct-action confrontations on campus and in town. Although the two groups shared members and ideals, the LLPD's less confrontational tactics allowed it to survive longer than CORE, which died by the early 1950s. Moreover, the LLPD as an organization distanced itself from CORE when the latter's confrontational tactics seemed too radical. The LLPD disbanded in 1965 when protests associated with Martin Luther King Jr's movement made the organization seem outdated and even conservative.

In the case of both the LLPD and CORE, civil rights workers promoted interracial cooperation while their new, modernized rhetoric exposed shared values of democracy and Christian humanism that served as the basis of their activism. In the end, however, both groups failed to effect lasting change. Opponents of integration, for example, also proved adept at adopting democratic rhetoric, using it to defend private property and the right of business owners to serve whomever they chose. …

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