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A World of Plenty, The Civil Rights Movement Begins

Orval Faubus, desegregation of schools, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Chicago newspaper, freedom rides

In the 1940s and 1950s the NAACP attacked race discrimination in the courts. It chipped away at Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a Supreme Court decision upholding segregationist laws. The NAACP lawyers’ greatest success was the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, in which the Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools. The decision struck a Chicago newspaper as a “second emancipation proclamation.”

The Supreme Court’s implementation order of 1955, designed to hasten compliance, ordered desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed,” but compliance was slow. When the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, tried to block the enrollment of nine black students into Little Rock High School in 1957, television showed the entire nation the confrontation between National Guard troops and segregationists. Television news helped make Little Rock’s problem a national one, and television crews continued to cover civil rights protests.

In December 1955 the black community in Montgomery, Alabama, organized a bus boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. A local minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize the boycott. In 1957 ministers and civil rights leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC, which adopted a policy of nonviolent civil disobedience, formed the backbone of the civil rights movement in the United States.

The civil rights movement expanded on February 1, 1960, when four black college students at North Carolina A&T University began protesting racial segregation in restaurants by sitting at whites-only lunch counters and waiting to be served. Within days the sit-ins spread throughout North Carolina, and within weeks they reached cities across the South. To continue students’ efforts and to give them an independent voice in the movement, college students in 1960 formed another civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Students and activists soon adopted other methods of protesting segregation, such as freedom rides—bus trips throughout the South in order to desegregate buses and bus stations. A powerful civil rights movement was underway.

Postwar prosperity brought comfort and social mobility to many Americans. Those who had grown up during the Great Depression especially appreciated the good life of the postwar years. Prosperity, however, eluded many citizens. The era, moreover, was hardly placid and complacent, but eventful and divisive. Signs of change around 1960 included the growing role of youth, the civil rights protests, and the simmering of dissent.

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