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The achievement of civil rights so slow in the period 1954-1957 Essay

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Why was the progress towards the achievement of civil rights so slow in the period 1954-1957?

From 1954-1957 significant legal progress in the field of civil rights was made, thus instilling confidence in the black community, however due to a number of factors putting these achievements into practice was halted and so civil rights progressed at a slow rate throughout this period of time.

In 1954 Brown Vs Topeka was brought before the Supreme Court, with Brown winning the appeal with a unanimous vote. This was a landmark verdict, due to the fact that the judge, Earl Warren had been newly appointed by President Eisenhower and was a Southern Republican, therefore he disobeyed Eisenhower with the decision. Eisenhower was later stated as saying, ‘The biggest damn fool mistake I ever made.’ Therefore demonstrating the Presidents lack of support for the ruling. It was a triumph for the NAACP who had provided the lawyer Thurgood Marshall and had pushed the case through. It overthrew Plessy Vs Ferguson and so was expected to bring about a dramatic change for black civil rights.

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Although in principal Brown should have brought about a significant change, the progress from the court decision, to putting desegregation in schools into practice was very slow. This was partly due to the court hearing, as no date was set for when the desegregation of schools must be completed, this resulted in the whites ignoring the court hearing, so maintaining the same ignorant attitude as before. However the court decision had empowered the black community and so Brown II was brought before the courts in 1955, again however this did not result in a definite result.

President Eisenhower was also a significant reason for the slow progress of civil rights. When he took over from President Truman, he inherited the beginnings of a strong civil rights campaign, however Eisenhower did not share this same drive. He failed to take substantial leadership towards enforcing the verdict, as he was afraid of stirring up opposition, resentment and disorder in the South. He also did not believe that it was appropriate to interfere in individual state matters, although general consensus suggests that if he had shown strong leadership then the bill would have been put into practice at greater speeds. He believed that race relations would gradually improve on their own accord.

Although Brown Vs Topeka overthrew Plessy Vs Ferguson, after the ruling no steps were taken to desegregate public places, again showing the slow progress. However the black community were fed up and so decided to take the matter into their own hands with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The black community in Montgomery was organised through the NAACP and led by Martin Luther King. Originally they only intended to boycott the buses for a day in order to achieve a more polite service from the bus drivers, employment of black drivers and the end of blacks standing when the bus was not full. However they met opposition from Montgomery’s all white officials. This represents why progress was slowed down, as all decisions were met by substantial opposition from whites, forcing any actions to be dramatic, in order to get them to accept their views.

This resulted in a yearlong boycott of the Montgomery buses in order to receive total desegregation on the buses. Within this time the White Citizens Council’s membership doubled from 6000 to 12,000 from February to March. The boycott attracted national media coverage, showing that the greater publicity that the blacks attracted, the more the whites stuck together in order to create a strong opposition and prevent change. However in this case the blacks economic power was stronger than the white resistance and so in December 1956 the boycott was called off. This shows how much effort it took to achieve progress, however even then it was limited, as the success was only limited to the buses in Montgomery, however it acted as an example for other departments and cities, to what could be achieved through non-violent protests.

This was also demonstrated in the case of Emmett Till. When the 14-year-old boy was murdered his mother decided to bring his body home to Chicago and have an open casket. This attracted 100s of the black population that dominated Chicago and the national press to attend. This mass of media coverage, not only united the blacks, and made the moderate whites aware and sympathetic of the cause, but it also ruined any chance of a fair trial. This is because the whites accused the NAACP of using the case as propaganda, so creating a Northern backlash. The southern population then closed ranks, making it harder to prosecute. This again shows that the more publicity that black civil rights was given, the greater the white opposition that they had to face. However this only made the black community more determined.

The case of Emmett Till was significant as at first it showed some progress towards a fair trial, with the men accused of lynching arrested, usually they would not have been prosecuted, and a black man standing up and accusing a white man in court. However the jury was composed of 12 white males, and in the defence’s closing speech he said, ‘I hope every last Anglo-Saxon one of you makes the right decision.’ Therefore again showing how when accused the whites stuck together. Again throughout this case Eisenhower gave no leadership and did not intervene, as he did not think that federal intervention was appropriate, and did not want to or aim to do anything to alleviate black problems, even when Emmett Tills mother requested his help. Showing again how little progress had been made.

Throughout this time, there were strong black leaders, Martin Luther King, and people that The NAACP used for test cases, Rosa Parks and the 9 children in Little Rock. These set examples to the black community, that through courage and determination, slowly change was possible. However many were not willing to make this commitment, like the 16 children who changed their minds about attending Little Rock High School after passing the exam. This was due to the increasing white resistance and discrimination that they faced. Martin Luther King was arrested for doing 30mph in a 25 mph zone, and his house was bombed.

As well as this death threats were sent to the children’s houses and they were spat at as they walked down the street. White resistance included the establishment of the Southern Manifesto, which was drafted by Senator Sam Ervin and promised to fight the Brown verdict by ‘legal means.’ Showing that there was still huge resistance to change, and integration. So making it difficult for progress to continue. As well as this the establishment of the White Citizens Council, which was used as opposition in the Montgomery bus boycott. It was formed to protest the federal government acting dictatorially and seeking to impose its values and opinions on others. This acted as an excuse for Eisenhower, who had little intention of interfering anyway, again slowing down progress.

On 3rd of September 1957 9 black children, who had sat and passed an entrance exam, attempted to enter Central High School. However they were met by a hostile crowd of white adults who blocked their way, while shouting abuse such as ‘Niger’s go back to the jungle.’ This was the first significant step towards putting the Brown decision into practice and so attracted a lot of criticism. It signified that the ruling met tremendous grass-roots resistance when put into practice. And so although blacks tried to push segregation, it was clear that it would take a long time for the whites to accept it. On top of this neither local nor national authorities were keen to enforce Brown, which was shown by Governor Faubus.

He decided to exploit white racism in this situation, in order to ensure re-election. In this way he stirred up the crowd and ordered the Arkansas National Guard to bar the school, sending a strong message of hatred to the black students. The images of harassment and violence towards the children by aggressive white adults, again, like in the case of Emmett Till acted as propaganda. This was a victory for the NAACP as it created a wide spread moderate opinion. However Faubus who closed all the schools in Little Rock in1959, preventing black or white from attending, in order to prevent integration, again showing that more than a court decision was needed in order to establish desegregation, again slowed progress down.

As a result of the crowds and harassment of the children at Little Rock Eisenhower was forced to act. He had attempted to negotiate a settlement with Faubus, however the children were still not allowed to enter the school and the white violence in the streets became more aggressive, so Eisenhower sent in 10,000 troopers of the Arkansas National Guard. This was significant, as he had said that he could never envisage sending in federal troops to enforce federal court rulings. This was the only time in the 1950’s that Eisenhower used his federal authority to intervene in the Brown decision. In this way the children were permitted to enter the school, signifying how the process could have been sped up, if he had acted sooner. However his actions were due to an, ‘inescapable’ responsibility for enforcing the law, rather than a belief in integration. Again showing his lack of leadership and commitment to the cause, meaning that it was hard to put the brown decision into practice.

In 1957 a Civil rights bill to ensure the black vote was proposed, however again this met criticism. Democratic senators worked to weaken the bill, as they thought it would damage national and party unity. Again Eisenhower showed little leadership, claiming that he did not really know what was in the bill and so did not fight to keep it intact. Along with the filibustering by Storm Thurmond, it resulted in a much weakened bill, not allowing blacks to exercise the right to vote as those who were prosecuted with obstruction would be tried in an all white jury and let off. This shows that from 1954-57 little progress was made, as although ideas are initially passed when put into practice it takes along time for them to be accepted, and so slow progress is made.

To conclude from the evidence above it is clear that the building blocks of a strong civil rights campaign were begun between 1954-57, with the shocking legal decision of Brown Vs Topeka. However it is shown that although a decision was made in court, it does not mean that putting it into practice will be quick or easy. It shows that the more united the black community was and the harder that they pushed for change, the more stubborn the whites became, so making the changes impossible to implement without a fight.

This case was not helped by the lack of leadership from Eisenhower, as his silence was interpreted as a lack of support for the cause, so discouraging other whites to back it. The lack of progress is shown by the fact that by 1964, a whole 10 years after the Brown decision, only 2/3 of the USA’s black high school students attended de-segregated high schools. Therefore it is clear that between 1954-57 the achievement of civil rights progress was slow.

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