Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South

Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South

by Glenn Feldman
     
 

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This collection refutes the impression that the civil rights movement began with the momentous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and suggests that the movement originated in the 1930s and earlier, spurred by the Great Depression and World War II - events that would radically shape the course of politics in the South and the nation into the next

Overview

This collection refutes the impression that the civil rights movement began with the momentous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and suggests that the movement originated in the 1930s and earlier, spurred by the Great Depression and World War II - events that would radically shape the course of politics in the South and the nation into the next century.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A valuable and timely volume . . . particularly welcome for the emphasis it places on the churches, on white women, and on returning black and white veterans, groups whose postwar role has been too long ignored."—Anthony J. Badger, author of Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco, and North Carolina and The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780817314316
Publisher:
University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
09/28/2004
Series:
Modern South Series
Edition description:
1
Pages:
448
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.18(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Before Brown

Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South


By Glenn Feldman

UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9033-4



CHAPTER 1

"You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow"

CORE and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation

Raymond Arsenault


You don't have to ride jim crow,
You don't have to ride jim crow,
Get on the bus, set any place,
'Cause Irene Morgan won her case,
You don't have to ride jim crow.
Second stanza of the 1947 freedom song
"You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow"


WHEN IRENE MORGAN boarded a Greyhound bus in Hayes Store, Virginia, on July 16, 1944, she had no inkling of what was about to happen — no idea that her return trip to Baltimore would alter the course of American history. The twenty-six-year-old defense worker and mother of two had more mundane things on her mind. It was a sweltering morning in the Virginia Tidewater, and she was anxious to get home to her husband, a stevedore who worked on the docks of Baltimore's bustling inner harbor. Earlier in the summer, after suffering a miscarriage, she had taken her two young children for an extended visit to her mother's house in the remote countryside near Hayes Store, a crossroads hamlet in the Tidewater lowlands of Gloucester County. Now she was returning home for a doctor's appointment and perhaps a clean bill of health that would allow her to resume work at the Martin bomber plant where she helped build B-26 Marauders. The restful stay in Gloucester — where her mother's family had lived and worked since the early nineteenth century, and where she had visited many times since childhood — had restored some of her physical strength and renewed a cherished family bond. But it had also confirmed the stark realities of a rural folk culture shouldering the burdens of three centuries of plantation life. Despite Gloucester's proximity to Hampton Roads and Norfolk, the world war had brought surprisingly few changes to the area, most of which remained mired in suffocating poverty and an unremitting caste system.

As Irene Morgan knew all too well, Baltimore had its own problems related to race and class. Still, she could not help feeling fortunate to live in a community where it was relatively common for people of color to own homes and businesses, to vote on election day, to attend high school or college, and to aspire to middle-class respectability. Despite humble beginnings, Irene herself had experienced a tantalizing measure of upward mobility. The sixth of nine children, she had grown up in a working-class black family that had encountered more hardships than luxuries. Her father, an itinerant housepainter and day laborer, had done his best to provide for the family, but the difficulty of finding steady work in a depression-ravaged and racially segregated city had nearly broken him, testing his faith as a devout Seventh Day Adventist. Although a strong-willed mother managed to keep the family together, even after one of her daughters contracted tuberculosis, hard realities had forced Irene and her siblings to drop out of high school long before graduating. As a teenager, she worked long hours as a laundress, maid, and baby-sitter. Yet she never allowed her difficult economic circumstances or her circumscribed status as a black female to impinge on her sense of self-worth and dignity. Bright and self-assured, with a strong sense of right and wrong, she was determined to make her way in the world, despite the very real obstacles of prejudice and discrimination. As a young wife and mother preoccupied with her family, she had not yet found the time to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or any other organization dedicated to racial uplift. But in many ways she exemplified the "new Negro" that the NAACP had been touting since the 1930s. Part of a swelling movement for human dignity and racial equality, she was ready and willing to stand up — or, if need be, sit down — for her rights as an American citizen.

The Greyhound from Norfolk was jammed that morning, especially in the back where several black passengers had no choice but to stand in the aisle. As the bus pulled away from the curb, Morgan was still searching for an empty seat. When none materialized, she accepted the invitation of a young black woman who graciously offered her a lap to sit on. Later, when the bus arrived in Saluda, a county-seat town twenty miles north of Hayes Store, she moved to a seat relinquished by a departing passenger. Although only three rows from the back, she found herself sitting directly in front of a white couple — an arrangement that violated both custom and a 1930 Virginia statute prohibiting racially mixed seating on public conveyances. Since she was not actually sitting next to a white person, Morgan did not think the driver would ask her to move, and perhaps he would not have if a white couple had not boarded the bus a few seconds after she sat down. Suddenly, the driver turned toward Morgan and her seatmate, a young black woman holding an infant, and barked: "You'll have to get up and give your seats to these people." The young woman complied immediately, scurrying into the aisle near the back of the bus, but Morgan, perhaps forgetting where she was, suggested a compromise: she would be happy to exchange seats with a white passenger sitting behind her, she calmly explained, but she was too weak to stand for any length of time. Growing impatient, the driver repeated his order, this time with a barely controlled rage. Once again Morgan refused to give up her seat. As an uneasy murmur filled the bus, the driver shook his head in disgust before rushing down the steps to fetch the local sheriff.

Irene Morgan's impulsive act — like Rosa Park's more celebrated refusal to give up a seat on a Montgomery bus eleven years later — placed her in a difficult and dangerous position. In such situations there were no mitigating circumstances, no conventions of humanity or paternalism that might shield her from the full force of the law. To the driver and to the sheriff of Middlesex County, the fact that she was a woman and in ill health mattered little. By challenging both the sanctity of segregation and the driver's authority, she had disturbed the delicate balance of etiquette, endangering a society that made white supremacy the cornerstone of social order. With this in mind, the sheriff and his deputy showed no mercy as they dragged her out of the bus. Both men later claimed that they resorted to force only after Morgan kicked the sheriff three times in the leg, but even they did not deny that she ultimately got the worse of the exchange. When she complained that they were hurting her arms, the deputy shouted, "Wait til I get you to jail, I'll beat your head with a stick." Charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia's Jim Crow transit law, she spent the next seven hours slumped in the corner of a county jail cell. Late in the afternoon, after her mother posted a $500 bond, she was released by county authorities who were confident that they had made their point: no uppity Negro from Baltimore could flout the law in the Virginia Tidewater and get away with it.

As Morgan and her mother left the jail, Middlesex County officials had good reason to believe they had seen the last of the feisty young woman from Baltimore. In their experience, any Negro with a lick of sense would do whatever was necessary to avoid a court appearance. If she knew what was good for her, she would hurry back to Maryland and stay there, even if it meant forfeiting a $500 bond. They had seen this calculus of survival operate on countless occasions, and they didn't expect anything different from Morgan. What they failed to anticipate was her indomitable determination to achieve simple justice. As Morgan recalled many years later, she had paid her money, was minding her business, and sitting where she was supposed to sit — and was not going to take the insult. The incident in Saluda left her with daunting medical and financial problems, but it did not diminish her sense of outrage or her burning desire for vindication. As she waited for her day in court, discussions with friends and relatives, some of whom belonged to the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, brought the significance of her challenge to Jim Crow into focus. Her personal saga was part of a larger story — an ever-widening struggle for civil rights and human dignity that promised to recast the nature of American democracy. Driven, as one family member put it, by "the pent-up bitterness of years of seeing the colored people pushed around," Morgan embraced the responsibility of bearing witness, of confronting her oppressors, in a court of law.

On October 18, 1944, Morgan stood before Middlesex County circuit judge J. Douglas Mitchell and pleaded her case. Although she represented herself as best she could, arguing that Virginia law did not apply to interstate passengers, the outcome was never in doubt. Convicted on both charges, she was fined $100 for resisting arrest and $10 and court costs for violating state segregation law. As expected, she promptly paid the first fine. But, to Judge Mitchell's dismay, she announced her intention to appeal the second conviction to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Morgan's appeal raised more than a few eyebrows in the capital city of Richmond, where it was no secret that the NAACP had been searching for suitable test cases that could be used to challenge the constitutionality of the state's Jim Crow transit law. Segregated transit was a special concern in Virginia, which served as a racial and legal gateway for southbound bus and railway passengers. Crossing into the Old Dominion from the District of Columbia, which had no Jim Crow restrictions, or from Maryland, which, unlike Virginia, limited its segregationist mandate to local and intrastate passengers, could be a jarring and bewildering experience for travelers unfamiliar with the complexities of border-state life. This was an old problem, dating back at least a half century, but the number of violations and interracial incidents involving interstate passengers had multiplied in recent years, especially since the outbreak of World War II. With the proliferation of military personnel and with the rising militancy of the Double V campaign, which sought twin victories over enemies abroad and racial discrimination at home, Virginia became a legal and cultural battleground for black Americans willing to challenge the dictates of Jim Crow. As early as 1908, a survey of the "color line" by the journalist Ray Stannard Baker had revealed that "no other point of race contact is so much and so bitterly discussed among Negroes as the Jim Crow car." And this was still true thirty-six years later, according to Gunnar Myrdal, the author of the monumental 1944 study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy. "It is a common observation," he noted, "that the Jim Crow car is resented more bitterly among Negroes than most other forms of segregation."

NAACP attorneys, both in Virginia and in the national office, knew all of this and did what they could to chip away at the legal foundations of Jim Crow transit. But they were frustrated by their inability to attract the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessy v. Ferguson, the cornerstone of the "separate but equal" doctrine that had sustained segregationist law since 1896, had validated a Louisiana segregated coach law, and through the years the Court had been reluctant to revisit the issue in any fundamental way. In 1910, with former Klansman Edward White of Louisiana serving as chief justice, the Court ruled in Chiles v. Chesapeake and Ohio Railway that state segregation laws could be applied to interstate passengers. Four years later, in McCabe v. Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, the Court showed some openness to the argument that black travelers had a legal right to equal accommodations, but this tantalizing decision only served to divert attention from the underlying reality of racial separation. According to Catherine Barnes, the leading historian of transit desegregation, for the next three decades "Southern blacks attempted only to equalize accommodations, not to undo segregation."

During the 1920s and early 1930s, when conservative Republicans dominated the Court, few NAACP attorneys questioned this pragmatic strategy. But from the mid-1930s on, the increasingly liberal Roosevelt Court encouraged a reformulation of the organization's approach to the interrelated problems of racial discrimination and segregation. Affecting all aspects of the NAACP's legal war on Jim Crow, this rethinking was especially apparent in cases involving segregated transit. In 1941 the campaign for equal travel accommodations finally brought a measure of victory in Mitchell v. Arkansas — a unanimous decision that affirmed Illinois congressman Arthur Mitchell's claim to the same first-class service accorded white travelers. Thurgood Marshall, William Hastie, and other NAACP legal theorists were convinced that the practice of applying state laws to interstate passengers was especially vulnerable to legal challenge. Citing the interstate commerce clause and Hall v. DeCuir — a long-forgotten 1877 decision that, ironically, had invalidated a state law prohibiting racial segregation among interstate steamboat passengers — they felt confident that they could persuade the Roosevelt Court to restrict legally mandated segregation to intrastate passengers. This strategy, which called for a reversal of the 1910 Chiles decision, allowed the NAACP to move forward without risking a premature reconsideration of Plessy. Since pushing the Court too fast or too far would almost certainly lead to a setback for the cause of civil rights, a cautious and careful selection of test cases was essential. To counter the inertial presumptions of American law, the NAACP needed the right defendant in the right place at the right time.

In 1942, the legal committee of the Virginia NAACP, led by three Howard University–trained attorneys — Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, and Martin A. Martin — began the search for a case that would bring the interstate issue before the Court. Working closely with Marshall and the national legal staff, the committee considered and rejected a number of potential clients before discovering Irene Morgan in the fall of 1944. Almost immediately they sensed that this was the case and the defendant they needed. Not only was the basis of her conviction clear, but Morgan also had the makings of an exemplary client. She was young, attractive, articulate, and, judging by her poised performance in Saluda, strong enough to withstand the pressures of a high-profile legal battle.

With Marshall's blessing, the Virginia NAACP filed a carefully crafted appellate brief emphasizing the interstate commerce clause and Hall v. DeCuir. But, as expected, the seven justices of the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Morgan's conviction. In a rambling sixteen-page opinion issued on June 6, 1945, the court upheld the constitutionality of the 1930 Jim Crow transit law, reiterating the wisdom and legality of segregating all passengers, regardless of their origin or destination. Speaking for the court, Justice Herbert Gregory did not deny that Hall v. DeCuir established a legal precedent for invoking the commerce clause as a barrier to state statutes that interfered with interstate commerce, but he summarily dismissed the NAACP's claim that the 1930 law involved such interference. "Our conclusion," he declared, "is that the statute challenged is a reasonable police regulation and applies to both intrastate and interstate passengers. It is not obnoxious to the commerce clause of the Constitution."

Gregory's plain and forthright words were just what the NAACP wanted to hear. With a little help from the Virginia Supreme Court, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia had become a near-perfect test case. When the Virginia court denied the NAACP's petition for a rehearing in September, Spot Robinson could hardly wait to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 1946 the Court agreed to hear the case, and two months later Robinson joined Marshall and Hastie for the oral argument in Washington. Even though he was the NAACP's leading authority on segregated transportation law, Robinson could not actually argue the case because he was not yet certified to appear before the Court. But during the argument he sat at the table with Marshall and Hastie. Although this was the first time that the NAACP had argued a segregated transit case in front of the Court, the organization's talented team of attorneys made short work of Virginia attorney general Abram Staples's tired arguments on behalf of the status quo. Focusing on the Virginia statute's broad reach, they argued that forcibly segregating interstate passengers violated the commerce clause, infringed upon congressional authority, and threatened the nation's tradition of free movement across state lines. Insisting that this misuse of state segregation laws placed an unnecessary and unconstitutional burden on individuals as well as interstate bus companies, the NAACP gave the Court a compelling rationale for overruling the Virginia court's judicial and racial conservatism. "Today, we are just emerging from a war in which all of the people of the United States were joined in a death struggle against the apostles of racism," the NAACP brief reminded the justices. Surely it was time for the Court to declare that federal law no longer sanctioned "disruptive local practices bred of racial notions alien to our national ideals, and to the solemn undertakings of the community of civilized nations as well."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Before Brown by Glenn Feldman. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Glenn Feldman is Associate Professor of Business in the Center for Labor Education and Research at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and author of Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949.  Patricia Sullivan is Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and author of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era.

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