Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

MODERATES AND MILITANTS:
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE WHITE SOUTH

On 17 May 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued the ruling that millions of Americans - black and white, northern and southern - had been awaiting with enormous expectation. It had taken seventeen months for the Court to reach its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. The central issue before the Court was whether racial segregation in public schools deprived black children of the same standard of education as whites. Reading from the bench, Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that 'in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.'1

The Brown decision has attracted considerable debate among scholars. Some celebrate it as the decisive breakthrough in the struggle for racial equality; others discredit it as a flawed ruling that actually proved counterproductive to change. This chapter assesses the relative merits of both sides in the debate. It measures the impact of the Court decision by analysing the scale and momentum of racial reform in the southern states during the years immediately before and after Brown. In particular, it focuses on the political struggle between the forces of racial moderation and racial militancy as a means of determining whether change could have been accomplished peacefully from within the region or whether it had to be enforced from outside by the federal government.


THE TRUMAN ADMINISTRATION AND CIVIL RIGHTS

One of the most promising aspects of post-war change was the more activist role of the federal government on civil rights matters. During more than a dozen years in the White House, Franklin Roosevelt had resisted any direct advocacy of black civil rights, principally out of a concern not to alienate southern congressional support. The man who succeeded him as president, Harry S. Truman, associated his administration much more conspicuously

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