Monday, March 15, 2010

The Black Freedom Struggle, 1945-1954

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the battle to desegregate Jim Crow schools prior to the Supreme Court's "Brown v. Board of Education" decision.

Whether or not they had the support of the Washington political establishment, the African American community fought most of the struggle for civil rights themselves. In October 1946, four hundred African American children in Lumberton, N.C., staged a walkout from classes to protest the shoddy, unsafe conditions at segregated black campuses. The students held signs sadly asking, “How Can I Learn When I’m Cold?” and noting “It Rains On Me.”

Such grassroots protests enjoyed surprising, if still limited, success. Spending on black education increased in the South in the immediate post-war years, but that improvement was relative since allocations for African American schools in the former Confederacy before the war had been minuscule. Nevertheless, the increased industrialization of the South as a result of the world war and the post-war economic boom gave the poorest states in Dixie more money to spend on black students. The per capita spending in Louisiana on African American pupils rose from an almost non-existent $16 in 1940 to a still meager $116 in 1955. South Carolina passed a $75 million bond issue funded by a 3 percent sales tax increase to improve and expand black schools.

White-run Southern legislatures did this because, against all odds, African Americans applied pressure to the Southern power structure. The NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns had substantially reduced the number of black men, women and children murdered for racial reasons each year. White mobs murdered almost 60 African Americans annually in the five years starting with the end of World War I, from 1918 through 1922. As a result of NAACP lobbying, the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department in the late 1930s increased federal prosecutions for police brutality and began investigating lynchings. Between 1937 and 1946, lynch mobs murdered 42 African Americans, but as a result of federal pressure, law enforcement rescued 226 potential victims. Whites lynched six African Americans in 1946, but local authorities prevented 22 murders.

Black political power increased as the number of registered black voters inched up across the South. Although most Southern African Americans still lacked access to the ballot, the total number of registered blacks in the former Confederacy had increased from a few thousand to approximately one million by 1952. In close elections, African Americans could determine the outcome. Relative moderates like Gov. Jim Folsom of Alabama and Mayor William B. Hartsfield in Atlanta actively sought the support of black voters and even promoted black voter registration. Southern legislatures also increased funding for black schools because they feared losing cases filed by the NAACP challenging segregated schools and realized they could not forever maintain the fiction that white and black campuses were “separate but equal.”

Nevertheless, by the early 1950s the economic, political and academic inequalities faced by African Americans in the South remained glaring and tragic. During an NAACP inspection of white and black schools in Clarendon County, S.C., for instance, Howard University associate professor Mathew J. Whitehead found that white schools had water fountains but black students had to use a dipper to scoop water from open buckets. The school system provided white students with buses but black students living far from campuses had no access to transportation. Each white campus employed a janitorial staff, but black teachers and students had to serve as uncompensated custodians at Jim Crow schools. White schools providing seating for every student while one black school in the county did not possess a single desk.


Beginning in the 1940s, the NAACP launched a legal offensive aimed at step-by-step desegregation of American education. Marion Sweatt forced open the doors of the University of Texas law school to African Americans in 1950. An NAACP activist in Houston since the early 1940s and a columnist for the local black-owned newspaper the Informer, Sweatt plunged into fundraising drives for the NAACP’s lawsuit against the so-called “white primary.” Democratic Party rules in Texas barred blacks from voting in primaries which, given the party’s almost complete monopoly on elective office in the first half of the twentieth century, left African Americans with no voice in partisan political races.

The NAACP successfully persuaded the United States Supreme Court to declare the white primary unconstitutional in the 1944 Smith v. Allwright case. A postal carrier, Sweatt fought against discriminatory policies that blocked African Americans in Texas from higher-paying positions as clerks. His work on that issue sparked his growing personal interest in a law career. Sweatt considered attending law school in Michigan, but changed his mind when his father suffered a heart attack. At the urging of Dallas NAACP attorney W.J. Durham, Sweatt applied to the UT Law School, aware that the school was legally vulnerable to litigation since the state of Texas had failed to provide a law school for African American students. Sweatt applied, was turned down, and on May 16, 1946 filed the Sweatt v. Painter case.

The state of Texas scrambled to provide sham law schools for blacks to avoid a federal desegregation order. The Texas A&M regents created a “law school” for blacks by hiring two Houston lawyers to hold classes in their offices. No one enrolled. The Texas Legislature, meanwhile, moved to convert Houston College for Negroes into Texas State University for Negroes, which would provide law classes for African Americans. (TSUN would open in 1947 and eventually be rechristened Texas Southern University.) At the University of Texas, regents set aside a basement in a building south of the campus on Thirteenth Street where black students could receive law instruction from the most junior members of the faculty, although African Americans would not have direct access to the law library or other resources. Only one black student, Henry Doyle, attended the Jim Crow classes. Sweatt and the NAACP refused to accept this sham.

After years of financial hardship while waiting for the case to wind through the courts, Sweatt and the NAACP prevailed in its lawsuit against UT in 1950. The same day as its Sweatt v. Painter decision, the Supreme Court ruled in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents that Oklahoma State University had erred when it admitted a black student to a graduate program but then required him to sit apart from white students. That momentous day in judicial history also saw the release of the Supreme Court’s decision in Henderson v. the United States, in which the court ruled that Jim Crow seating in railroad dining cars violated the Constitution.

Change came slowly even after the NAACP’s triple victory. After the Sweatt decision, the University of Texas admitted 22 African Americans out of a total enrollment of 12,000, with six of the black students enrolled in law classes. According to Texas NAACP historian Michael Gillette, the reactions of whites to Sweatt and the five other African Americans in the program were mixed. Most were agreeable, Sweatt said, and he and the other integration pioneers encountered few problems as they sought access to water fountains, restrooms, school dining facilities, lounges and football games. The Friday of his first week at UT, however, Sweatt discovered, after studying late at the law library, that a large white crowd had gathered across the street and was burning a cross. Accompanied by a white friend, Sweatt made it safely to his car, only to discover that the tires had been slashed. Although a few campus liberals offered condolence, UT officials largely ignored the incident and Austin police never made an arrest in the case.

The intense scrutiny of the press, the racism of faculty and students, and financial pressure destroyed Sweatt’s marriage during his two years at UT and undermined his academic performance. Poor health added to Sweatt’s difficulties as he battled a painful ulcer and missed seven weeks of classes after suffering appendicitis. He failed courses in his first year, audited the classes he failed in the fall of 1951, and re-enrolled in the spring semester of 1952, but he subsequently dropped out. Nevertheless, the Painter case laid the groundwork for the more famous Brown v. the Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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