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Civil Rights

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In the postwar years, the NAACP's legal strategy for civil rights continued to

succeed. Led by Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged and

overturned many forms of discrimination, but their main thrust was equal

educational opportunities. For example, in Sweat v. Painter (1950), the Supreme

Court decided that the University of Texas had to integrate its law school.

Marshall and the Defense Fund worked with Southern plaintiffs to challenge the

Plessy doctrine directly, arguing in effect that separate was inherently unequal.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary-

and secondary-school segregation, and in May 1954 issued its landmark ruling in

Brown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education was

unconstitutional. White Southerners received the Brown decision first with shock

and, in some instances, with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, white

opposition in the South had grown into massive resistance, a strategy to

persuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation orders. It was

believed that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court order,

it could not be enforced. Tactics included firing school employees who showed

willingness to seek integration, closing public schools rather than

desegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated.

The White Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation allover the South. The Citizens Council called for economic coercion of blacks who favored integrated schools, such as firing them from jobs, and the creation of

private, all-white schools. Virtually no schools in the South were desegregated

in the first years after the Brown decision. In Virginia one county did indeed

close its public schools. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Governor Orval

Faubus defied a federal court order to admit nine black students to Central High

School, and President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce

desegregation. The event was covered by the national media, and the fate of the

Little Rock Nine, the students attempting to integrate the school, dramatized

the seriousness of the school desegregation issue to many Americans. Although

not all school desegregation was as dramatic as in Little Rock, the

desegregation process did proceed-gradually. Frequently schools were

desegregated only in theory, because racially segregated neighborhoods led to

segregated schools. To overcome this problem, some school districts in the 1970s

tried busing students to schools outside of their neighborhoods. As

desegregation progressed, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew.

The KKK used violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoring

desegregation or black civil rights. Klan terror, including intimidation and

murder, was widespread in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, though Klan

activities were not always reported in the media. One terrorist act that did

receive national attention was the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old

black boy slain in Mississippi by whites who believed he had flirted with a

white woman. The trial and acquittal of the men accused of Till's murder were

covered in

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