Breaking the Color Barrier

U.S. Marshals Recall Life on the Front Lines of Desegregation

U.S. Marshal James McShane, left, and John Doar, far right, escort James Meredith.

hide captionU.S. Marshal James McShane, left, and U.S. Justice Department attorney John Doar, far right, escort James Meredith to class at the University of Mississippi.

Library of Congress
U.S. marshals escort six-year-old Ruby Bridges at William Frantz Elementary School.

hide captionU.S. marshals escort six-year-old Ruby Bridges at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, La. Ruby was the first African American to attend the school.

Corbis

Certain pictures from the civil rights era are burned into the nation's collective memory: black college students braving jeering crowds to integrate all-white campuses; little girls dressed in their Sunday best, wading through a sea of racial hatred.

In most of those photos, barely inside the frame, there are men in dark suits and white armbands. They're deputies from the U.S. Marshals Service — federal enforcers of court-ordered desegregation.

NPR's Michele Norris, host of All Things Considered, talks with former U.S. Marshals Don Forsht and Al Butler. They were part of a special team recruited to carry out desegregation orders in the 1950s and '60s. Their work took them to the major Southern hotspots during the campaign of massive resistance, such as Little Rock, Birmingham and Oxford. In city after city, when the showdown over desegregation hit the schoolhouse door, marshals like Forsht and Butler were there to protect black children trying to enroll at all-white schools.

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