Did Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and (1955) create a white backlash that was counterproductive to the overall goals of achieving an integrated society?
Written by Mohammed Umar Farooq
There is no doubt regarding the significance of Brown v. Board of Education to the plea of the Afro American Community. It was a case of two parts that challenged the very culture of the Southern States of the United States of America. ‘The Amsterdam News of Harlem said that this was the greatest victory for the Negro people since the Emancipation Proclamation (Prendergast and Patterson, 2001). The comparison of this case to emancipation was a clear indication of the magnitude of achievement that the Afro American Community had felt. As Ralph Ellison said; ‘What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children’ (Prendergast and Patterson, 2001). This statement of joy did not foresee the obstacles that were about to befall upon it. What affects would a black victory in the ‘supreme court’ have on the White majority? How would this victory reshape a culture where segregation was not only acceptable, but a way of existence? And how would the white community react to this attack upon their way of life? Professor Klarman believes that the Brown Case. ‘directly led to the election of rabid segregationists throughout the South. They, in turn, unleashed, or allowed to be unleashed, the brutal suppression of civil rights demonstrators’ (Rosenberg, 1994). It was through the broadcast of this suppression (via the media, throughout the country) that a counter narrative was presented resulting in the Civil Rights act being passed. Professor Klarman thus argues that ‘Brown did help bring about civil rights legislation, but in a torturous, indirect and ‘perverse manner’ (Rosenberg, 1994). Professor Klarman believes that Brown did have an effect on the passing of the civil rights act, but he ‘underestimated the deeply violent nature of Jim Crow and its defenders’ (Rosenberg, 1994). He fails to take into account the ways in which the implementation could course violence and social unrest. Leaving one to ask the question of; whether the civil rights act would still have been passed if the case of Brown was never heard? In attempt to answer this question Professor Klarman makes clear his understanding that it was Brown ‘that led to the election of segregationist public officials, who either encouraged such violence or allowed it to take place’ (Rosenberg, 1994). However Professor Rosenberg argues that Professor ‘Klarman misperceives the nature of Jim Crow, presenting it as less malign than it actually was’ (Rosenberg, 1994). All this is based upon Klarmans’ theory that Brown caused ‘southern politics to dramatically shift to the right on racial issues’ (Rosenberg, 1994), creating the correct social conditions for a ‘southern political climate in which racial extremism flourished’ (Klarman, 1994). Schools throughout the south refused to implement the ruling unless there was a court order that forced them to ‘as community sentiment would not permit desegregation’ (Klarman, 2004). There was the forming of white resistance that had not been anticipated. This was the in retaliation to the Afro American Victory in the case of Brown.
During the years that followed the ruling Congress showed it displease and that led to the court distancing itself from such cases. The court paid particular attention to Congressional sentiment by ‘avoiding Civil Rights cases until well into the 1960’s’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p.74). Caught between its ruling, Congressional hostility and objection, alongside white rejection the court tried to find ways in which to implement the ruling. Though the legal demand for desegregation was not something the court was willing to ‘backtrack’ or compromise upon. The court did not act fully upon the implementation of the ruling by ‘sidestepping’ Civil Rights cases for the coming years. Throughout the country segregationists were creating ways in which to stall of delay the implantation of the court ruling, it was essential that the court have ‘either the sword or the purse’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p .75) as the ‘ active support of political elites was necessary’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p.75). Even President Dwight Eisenhower failed to either support or oppose the ruling of desegregation, saying; ‘Thurgood Marshall got his decision, now let him enforce it’ (Peltason, 1961, p. 54). This was due to a very real chance of political rebuttal and alienation. The court found itself alone as a national white backlash was forming a great speed.
The governmental members of the Southern states were in unanimous opposition of the ruling, and many were elected upon the promise of doing whatever it took to ‘ bring about a reversal of this decision, which is contrary to the constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation’ (Rosenberg’ 2008, p.78), making it understood that Washington (D.C.) would not be forcing the implementation of the court ruling. Southern Governors rejected the ruling, whipping up support for themselves from the white (majority) segregationist community. They refused to let desegregation take place declaring (like George Wallace of Alabama); ‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p.78). This appeased the pain that southern white society ‘believed’ it had been inflicted with, while showing that state government (and some national government members) were willing to defy the Supreme Court ruling in order to support the sentiment of their people, and protect their values, culture and way of life. This in turn created a political climate where anybody who supported desegregation would ‘incur the wrath of state political leaders and quite possibly national ones’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p.79) too, minimising support for desegregation as that would most certainly result in political suicide.
In order to preserve segregation many legislators through out the southern states passed laws specifically to protect segregation. One such action was for the legislative authorities (in almost all state provinces) to place obstacles before NAACP, making it increasingly difficult for them to be able to bring forward more cases that supported the cause of ‘Civil Rights’. Some states compelled them to hand over records and membership lists to authorities, while accusing them of ‘being linked to communism’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p.79). the membership lists alongside the accusation served as a way in which to stop blacks speaking out. As the publication of these lists could place the members in danger of white revenge attacks. The purposeful production of literature that was circulated within each state created a need to resist the threat that desegregation posed as communism. The number of privately owned (white only) schools massively increased as the resistance now involved both legislation and the whole of the white southern community. Desegregation fast became something that was not even seen as an option. There was no pressure from Washington and this served the southern purpose in maintaining segregation in all aspects of social existence. Anti Civil Rights groups and local officials used the concentration of Blacks within certain areas as a tool to resist. The higher ‘ the greater the proportion of blacks in a given area, the stronger seems to be the discriminatory intent of white political officials’ (Rosenberg, 2008, p.85). The case of Brown and its ruling created a wave of racial resistance that was of massive magnitudes, no politician working within the sudden states could be elected of survive unless they were able to appose desegregation at every turn. As articulated by Ray Harris (President of the Citizens Councils of America) who said; ‘if you’re a white man then it is time to stand up with us, or black you’re face and get on the other side’ (Klarman, 1994). Either you were in aggreagreement the ruling of desegregation, or you would fight its implementation to the very end. This was a racial divide that had no ‘middle ground’, either you were against the ruling of desegregation or were ‘portrayed as a nigger loving communist’ (Klarman, 1994). For all those who were white, impartial or apposed to segregation, this placed great pressure upon them as they saw southern politics moving quickly towards the right and had no option but to join the resistance, as being white and supporting desegregation would be seen as an act treachery against their own race. Through Brown the. Supreme Court ruled that Southern society must change, it attacked the epitome of social existence and that was met with nothing less resentment and hatred. The unification of southern whites was along the lines of cultural identity, and thus class, education and affluence no longer served as divisive measures amongst southern whites. They were unified upon concept of racial identity culture, thus vowing to protect and preserve their very existence.
Professor Klarman illustrates his belief ‘that the depth and strength of the apartheid system meant that black demands for equal rights would be met with violent repression. It did not take Brown for white southerners to understand that blacks marching for civil rights’ posed a major threat to the status quo’ (Rosenberg, 1994, p 165), even the marching of blacks may not be as important as the fact that there was a unified statement and opposition to the concept of segregation as a whole. Southern whites unification was on the premise that blacks had now started to demand rights, and that was a potential factor to the destabilisation and redefinition of the southern states. Though Professor Klarman makes a valid point it is important to note the their would have been a ‘white backlash’ even if Brown did not occur. The day on which any Black was to contest his treatment within the legal system and win, would for sure be seen as an attack on white culture and privilege and thus cause backlash, hatred and resentment. This could be the only opposition, to the unification of blacks throughout the south. It was ‘ the threat to the system posed by black southerners that was the main force creating the violent response’ (Rosenberg, 1994, p.165). Though Brown served as the catalyst, it is important to understand that the change was inevitable and thus the reaction was consequential to the change, making Brown nothing more than the spark that caused a foreordained explosion.
Brown provided ‘the push that was necessary to introduce public officials to do what they would not have done voluntarily but were not strongly resistant to doing’ (Klarman, 2004, p.346). After the crisis at Little Rock, which resulted in President Dwight Eisenhower dispatching Federal Troops in order to restore calm, desegregation as whole in the south came to a stand still. Some districts that had planned to uphold the court ruling now were reconsidering their options, while others such as ‘Texas passed a law that required cutting off state funds to districts that desegregated without conducting a referendum’ (Klarman, 2004, p.349) causing the implantation of desegregation to completely cease for the foreseeable future. The south had been radicalised and was willing to do whatever it took to stop desegregation. Brown had caused for many education board members to be stuck between the courts and the southern state politicians. If desegregation was implemented then the states’ politicians would cut funding and this would lead to school closure. Professor Klarman Says;
‘School boards that acted first also ran heighten risks of violence, as itinerant troublemakers, such as John Kasper, a New Jersey segregationist who openly advocated forcible resistance to Brown, would come to town and rally the opposition. Clinton and Nashville the second and third school districts to desegregate, had to endure extended visits from Kasper, which were followed by school bombings’
(Klarman, 2004, p. 351)
The options presented were either to obey the court, or the state (which had consequences) as the community as a whole was so strongly opposed to desegregation. This showed that the sentiment was one of blatant disregard for the law on behalf of the southern states. The white backlash was clearly one of hatred and malicious intent as in the case of Medger Evans, Clennon King and Clyde Kennard who were threatened with violence, and untimely murdered by the KKK for trying to desegregate the universities of Mississippi. Forcing blacks to back down or face the retribution at the hands of a white organisation known for killing in the most gruesome manner.
There is no doubt that Brown v. the Board of Education is a valuable case that challenged the very core of southern white culture. It was also successful in its exposition of white sentiment, and its illustration of how unacceptable the culture of the south was. However its is important to note that the white backlash attributed to Brown v. the Board of Education was not counterproductive to the achievement of a integrated society as there was no other outcome that could have achieved given the culture and history of the southern states. As ‘litigation could only bring the issue before a judge’ (Klarman, 2004, p.354), no matter who or where a case was heard? The reaction of the southern states would most defiantly have been the same in order to protect white society, and culture from what they deemed a threat from decades prior. During the time the that Brown v. the Board of Education was heard most Federal Judges (if not all) we born, raised and cultured by traditional southern culture and saw no issue in the segregating of society by racial bounds. So, when the Supreme Court Ruled against segregation and ordered desegregation this to the southern population was unacceptable, causing distance between the Supreme and Federal Courts. The Federal Courts felt no need to act upon the ruling and did whatever they could to overturn or stop its implantation. It is upon understanding this that one come to the realisation that; once we separate Brown v. the Board of Education from the rebuttal that it incurred, we then are able to see and understand the consequences of the ruling were unavoidable, as no matter what the case was, and where it was heard the opposition to such a ruling was a natural ‘southern white’ reaction and avoidable within the historic political sentiment that the south possessed.
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