Several important blows for racial integration were struck during the 1940s and 1950s. One was President Truman’s integration of the armed forces and the federal bureaucracy. Another was Jackie Robinson’s appearance in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947. Until that spring, major-league baseball had had an unofficial “whites only” agreement. Black players had the Negro Leagues, with great stars like Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and Cool Papa Bell. Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, determined to bring quality players to his team regardless of their race, sought out Robinson and offered him a contract. When players on other teams threatened to go on strike rather than play against an African American, National League president Ford Frick issued this statement:
I do not care if half the league strikes. . . . I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as any other. The National League will go down the line with Robinson, whatever the consequences.
Robinson endured a difficult season of taunts, jeers, and death threats from the public, and a measure of hostility from many players. However, his superb skills eventually won his teammates and the fans over to his side. Other teams began hiring black players, and the Negro Leagues soon folded. Since baseball was played almost every day over the course of a six-month season, fans saw integration at work on a daily basis. This had a mitigating effect on many people’s prejudices. Baseball is only a game, but it played an important role in the Civil Rights movement by making a highly visible statement about integration.
In Montgomery, Alabama, a tired seamstress named Rosa Parks refused one day give up her bus seat to a white passenger. In the segregated South, the rule was that white bus passengers sat in the front, black passengers in the back; if a white person got on when all the seats were filled, a black person had to give up his or her seat. Parks defied this rule and was arrested. The Montgomery Improvement Association initiated over a year-long citywide bus boycott, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appealed Parks’s case. In November 1956, the Supreme Court declared that segregated seating on city buses was unconstitutional. This case brought Martin Luther King, Jr. into prominence for the first time.
The final factor was the integration of schools. In 1952, the Supreme Court first heard a case called Brown v. Board of Education. African-American lawyer Thurgood Marshall called into question the “separate but equal” principle from Plessy v. Ferguson, arguing that segregation was not only unnecessary, but actively harmful to black students. In 1954, the court decided in favor of desegregation, noting that separate school systems were inherently and inevitably unequal. This decision made the segregation of public schools illegal as of 1954.
Reaction among white southerners was very much what it had been when slavery was outlawed. They were furious. Throughout the South, integration came slowly and painfully. The first black students to attend white schools had to be escorted by armed guards; even this did not stop white people from throwing rotten vegetables at them, jeering at them, and calling them foul names. However, the students continued to attend school in spite of constant harassment and threats. They were among the bravest Americans to play a role in the Civil Rights movement that would shape the following decade.
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