The First Milestone Of The Civil Rights March The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 had roots in dissent that began many years earlier. Along the way, the civil rights movement encountered reluctance to pass anti-lynching legislation, segregation in the military and the paltry representation of blacks in U.S. politics.
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The First Milestone Of The Civil Rights March

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The First Milestone Of The Civil Rights March

The First Milestone Of The Civil Rights March

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Last week, we began a series of conversations with NPR News analyst Juan Williams on the civil rights milestones that preceded the election of Barack Obama. Juan is back today to talk about the first of those milestones, the U.S. Supreme Court's groundbreaking decision in the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education case. Good morning, Juan. Nice to see you again.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: Now, I know that Brown versus Board of Education is a concrete landmark, but the dissent that led to it began much earlier.

WILLIAMS: Indeed, and in fact, your listeners, Liane, after our segment last week called me to say, wait a minute, why did you start with Brown? You could have started with slavery. You could have gone back to not only slavery but Dred Scott back in 1857, which set the stage for the Civil War, and even coming out of the Civil War, you could have talk about reconstruction. You could have talked about Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal. That's the Supreme Court ruling 1896.

Martin Luther King Jr. said there's an arc of justice, and so why did we pick '54? Well, '54 was rather arbitrary except it's a 50-year distance between pretty much that, Brown, and Barack Obama. But I think it's appropriate, and I think your listeners are wise to say, well, what was it like in the early part of the 20th century? And to understand that struggle, here's a clip from W.E.B. DuBois, who was the leading critic on race relations in the country at the start of the 20th century, the editor of the "The Crisis," the NAACP magazine.

(Soundbite of W.E.B. DuBois)

Mr. W.E.B. DUBOIS (Editor, The Crisis, NAACP Magazine): The Negroes had to have some voice in their government. They had to have protection in the courts. And they had to have trained men to lead them.

HANSEN: And that was part of the Smithsonian Folkway series in 1961. Talking about 1954 - that came after World War II. And this is - I mean, civil rights really started to seep into the public consciousness during World War II and then afterwards.

WILLIAMS: Right, so what you have at the start of the 20th century, as you just heard from DuBois, is this sense of, wait a second, we have to have the government break down some of these barriers to full participation of African-Americans in life of a citizen, that blacks should be treated as whole citizens.

And as you come forward in this struggle, the NAACP is playing a leading role. NAACP, by the way, is going to be 100 years old very soon, and you're starting to see people come together, black and white, in leading anti-lynching efforts throughout the country. It was hard to even get anti-lynching legislation passed, and then that builds up, and you're coming into the period of World War II that you're talking about.

And in that period, you get a dominant voice coming from A. Philip Randolph, who was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Liane. And, you know, as a union activist, he's trying to bring black workers, black labor together to get it recognized by labor, but also because blacks were not allowed to work in the munition industries that were supplying soldiers during World War II. He was confronting President Roosevelt with the possibility of a march on Washington.

HANSEN: Randolph started this conversation even before the United States entered the war. He met with FDR, the secretary of war, and the Navy secretary in the White House in 1940. What were they talking about?

WILLIAMS: Again, they were talking about the idea that there is a need to integrate Americans, black Americans into the military as full-fledged citizens of the republic. And this is a conversation, by the way, that Walter White, then head of the NAACP, is picking up. Walter White once said that, you know, it may be fantastic to think about it, but wouldn't it be fabulous if there was an opportunity to experiment with organizing a division or regiment where you didn't have blacks and whites separated, but that you had black and white working together all under the title of American soldiers. So, you have Randolph working on the home front to try to break that segregation, White talking about breaking down segregation in the military overseas.

HANSEN: Now, how did the integration of the armed forces, then, inspire what we first started to talk about, the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education?

WILLIAMS: Well there - that is a really breakthrough point when you start to see, during the Korean War, as a result of President Truman's decision, the end of total segregation in the U.S. military.

HANSEN: So there was Plessy versus Ferguson; that was separate but equal. Brown versus Board of Education changed that, integration of school systems. But the Southern states resisted. Did the federal government change its methods immediately, or was it quite slow, the implementation?

WILLIAMS: Well, they were quite slow, and don't forget that the year after Brown, in '55, even the Supreme Courts says that the local school districts don't have to immediately desegregate, that it can be done with what they called all deliberate speed. But here is Thurgood Marshall speaking to the idea that the government is now shifting side. It's a key moment. A sea change has occurred.

Justice THURGOOD MARSHALL (Former Associate Justice, Supreme Court): Governmentally enforced segregation and governmentally imposed discrimination because of race, creed or color, so far as enforcement by government is concerned, will be off the books.

WILLIAMS: And that's the moment, then, that spawned so much idealism. Suddenly, you have black and white Americans, especially young people, willing to go down South and fight against segregation, willing to assert the idea that they can travel on buses on an equal basis, that there can be interstate transportation, in so many areas of life. It spawns the kind of optimism that leads everyone to come together for the Great March on Washington in '63, Liane.

HANSEN: And Thurgood Marshall goes on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.


HANSEN: Now, what was America's reaction to that?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know what? People remember the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, but they might be surprised that, if you go back, it actually - the confirmation hearings of Thurgood Marshall took longer. The suggestion was that he had communist ties. You know, you think back to people like Paul Robeson. The suggestion was that he was a drunk, a womanizer, and he certainly wasn't intellectual enough to sit on the high court. Again, the stereotypes as the well as the law weighing on African-Americans, Liane.

HANSEN: You talked about young people going down to fight for civil rights. So what are we going to explore in our next conversation?

WILLIAMS: I think we come forward because the big moment, as tied in to Barack Obama and this moment that we're exploring, is the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And it really sets America, again, on another course because it empowers blacks in a way that they had never been empowered as American citizens before.

HANSEN: NPR News analyst Juan Williams has written extensively on civil rights. His work include "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience" and "Eyes on the Prize," the companion book to the widely acclaimed PBS series on the civil rights movement. Juan, thanks, again.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Liane.

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