Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson : Precursors to the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

Ira Glasser was the national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for nearly a quarter century until his retirement in 2001.

We were told as children that World War II was a war fought against racism, against the idea that a whole class of people could be separated, subjugated, and even murdered because of their race and religion. But back home in the United States, while the war was being fought and in the years immediately following, racial separation and subjugation were entrenched by law in the Deep South and by custom nearly everywhere else. Even within America's armed forces, ostensibly fighting for the principles of democracy, fairness, and equal opportunity, black Americans were segregated into separate units that weren't allowed to fight alongside whites but instead were often relegated to building roads and digging latrines. Though military nurses were badly needed, the number of black nurses was kept small, and they were permitted to treat only black patients.

This moral contradiction between what America said it stood for and the way it was actually organized was most clearly articulated at the time by the eminent sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma, published in 1944. The thesis of his book was that a terrible tension existed in American society between our professed ideals of equality and fairness based on individual merit and the reality of harsh, suffocating exclusion and oppression based on skin color.

The evidence of that oppression was manifest, most clearly in the South. In those days, blacks and whites were kept apart by law and custom, in schools, buses, and theaters; at restaurants, hotels, and public toilets; at drinking fountains, swimming pools, parks, and baseball games; at the ballot box (where blacks were in various ways discouraged from voting and intimidated if they tried); in the jury box (where blacks were effectively excluded altogether); in the workplace (where blacks were pervasively denied fair opportunities); and in housing. Whereas such separation was enforced by law in the South, much the same separation was found in the North, effectively maintained by custom and tradition.

Moreover, such separation was not benign; "separate but equal" was a lie. Indeed, the purpose of separation was to maintain subjugation and inequality. Inferiority and exclusion was enforced by the police power of the state and by traditions so strong they nearly had the force of law. If you were black, individual merit was irrelevant, even dangerous. As the writer James Baldwin told us, black parents, even in the North, often feared for children who showed ambition or revealed hope. Joe Black, a star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early fifties, once said that when, as a boy, he expressed the hope of one day playing in the major leagues, he was admonished and told to give up his dream because it was not allowed. Oppression thus became internalized, the near-final solution of a racist society.

The dissonance between the American ideal of equal opportunity based on individual merit and the reality of oppressive inequality based on skin color threatened, after World War II, to split America asunder. But there were those, including Myrdal, who saw hope in that dissonance, who believed that if we could somehow come to grips with it and make genuine efforts to conform reality to our ideals, it could be the source of our moral redemption.

The story of that redemptive struggle is by now well known: how in 1954 a unanimous Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional; how nineteen months later, Rosa Parks sat down in a seat reserved for whites on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and how a then little- known 27-year-old black Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and aroused the conscience of a nation by organizing a bus boycott in her behalf. The modern civil rights movement was born and galvanized into action. …