A Pivotal Year
THE HISTORY of American politics for the past twenty-five years has been defined in part by the political costs of a morally ambitious undertaking. For a century after the Civil War, blacks fought in the courts, the streets, the churches, the unions, at Democratic and Republican conventions, in back-country schoolhouses, in the halls of Congress, on the assembly line, in army barracks, and on the shop floor to force the nation's political and legal system to take up the issue of institutionalized racial inequality.
The civil rights struggle, building momentum with increasingly significant victories, acquired sufficient force by the start of the 1960s to dominate the public agenda, and in the process became the single most important factor determining the future of the Democratic and Republican parties. The struggle leading up to this critical turning point in American politics was the longest, most difficult, and most dangerous peacetime effort in the nation's history to force a substantial expansion of the commitment to egalitarian principle. In the legal arena, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought case after case to court on behalf of southern black plaintiffs—men and women willing to submit themselves to the gravest personal danger in order to discredit the system of legal segregation. In a strategy carefully implemented over the course of twenty-one years—from 1933 to 1954—the NAACP brought to the Supreme Court a series of cases to lay the groundwork for a direct assault on the legal foundation of segregation, the "separate but equal" principle set out by the Supreme Court in the 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson.
The NAACP, in effect, progressively forced the Supreme Court to acknowledge that segregation inevitably produced inequality, that the Plessy doctrine of "separate but equal" was a contradiction in terms. The