What was the most important factor in the achievement of African American civil rights?

On the application of the test used to establish causation by lawyers—the ‘but for this the event would not have happened’ test—the key event in African-American achievement of civil rights between 1953 and 1965 was the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Brown v Topeka 1 & 2. This decision struck at segregation in education, but also in the provision of state facilities and services, across the South. By deciding that ‘separate’ could never mean ‘equal’, and that states had no right to segregate on racial grounds rooted in the constitution, it effectively went further than the reversal of Plessey v Ferguson but also undermined the legal ratio decidendi of the Slaughterhouse cases which had strengthened state power after the civil war.

Brown also forced a decision about whether or not to uphold the new interpretation—the only legal interpretation—of the constitution onto President Eisenhower, and it encouraged Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, and the liberals such as Hubert Humphrey and Eleanor Roosevelt associated with the Americans for Democratic Action, into the promotion of the proposals that would lead to the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

The Court made its decision after hearing arguments from the NAACP counsel associated with the case, and this may create the impression that it was actually the decades-long legal strategy rooted in the Niagara movement that had achieved change. However, the court did not have to listen to counsel, and indeed did not have to listen to the case at all. It is clear that twenty years of liberal court appointments, and the experience of the real world in world war two or in their personal lives of many of the Justices, and the personal investment of a liberal Republican, Earl Warren, in the decision were decisive.

Brown was what may be called a ‘first order’ cause of the achievement of civil rights. There were surrounding circumstances, however, which contextualize the decision. The most important of these is the judgment which Dwight Eisenhower came to as President of the United States that he would use the authority of his office and of the United States to carry it out. Until Eisenhower, there were very many examples of Presidents either resting on restrictive interpretations of the Constitution, or ignoring decisions of the Court favourable to civil rights—for example, Andrew Jackson in Wheeler v Georgia, or Abraham Lincoln in the matter of habeas corpus exposed in Ex Parte Merryman. Other presidents had actively undermined rights, like Andrew Johnson, who gave land back to confederates and allowed them to regain citizenship on the basis of a loose oath, or Rutherford Hayes who withdrew troops, and the faint hope of protecting African Americans, from the south. A different President may have ignored the court or dragged his feet or even opposed it; Dwight Eisenhower did not.

A third ‘second-order’ cause of the events that led to Brown was the growing discontent of the black community in the south with their lot, exemplified by the Montgomery Bus Boycott headed by Martin Luther King. This was a direct challenge by peaceful, and economic means, to the social infrastructure of segregation, and given the rhetoric of cold war Americanism and the experience of the New Deal and World War two, very difficult for many Americans to oppose. It was, in a sense, spiritually and politically connected with Brown, but not legally or factually. Had it not happened, Brown would still have occurred.

Americans in the Civil Rights Era could not isolate themselves from the civil rights movement, nor from what a lack of civil rights meant. This was in part because of the campaign of Martin Luther King to demonstrate, in a peaceful way, the hateful quality of segregation. But it was also because millions of Americans could now see, on television and in newspaper photographs, the consequences of things like the murder of Emmet Till, the Freedom riders, the Selma campaign, or the march on Washington, as well as the decisions of Bull Connor in Alabama.

Television and photographic technology were enormously important in conveying to families during the post-war economic boom which was characterized by rising living standards and expanding opportunity, founded in suburbanization and the GI bill, what exclusion of some meant.

A Tulsa-style dreamland massacre, or New York race riots, or zoot suit riots, such as happened in the early 1920s or 1940s, could not now be concealed from Americans. Exposing segregation and the false arguments of those who practiced it, to the views of post-Roosevelt, cold war America, put segregation on the high road to extinction, even though it was the Supreme Court that finished it off.

Two other key factors were ‘second order’ causes. Firstly, the emergence of a black voting bloc within Northern cities and trade unions, as a consequence of the Great Migration, which was prepared to send money and support to campaign for rights was an important political consideration in addressing the issue of black treatment in the South. A United States seeking support in Africa and Asia in the third world could not stand by and allow the 4,000 lynchings since reconstruction to continue, and a black bloc that could produce newspapers, voters, and people such as the mother of Emmet Till and the NAACP would not allow it to do so.

Earl Warren emerged in California politics as a Liberal Republican in a state marked by racism, and was a vice-presidential candidate in 1948. During that election, as he made the arguments for Tom Dewey and watched Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats self-destruct the Southern veto, Warren would have been foolish not to see that segregation was an impediment to the American message of opportunity. Earl Warren was not foolish.

The predominant achievements of Civil Rights came after the Brown decision; Little Rock in 1956, the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the interventions of President Kennedy to desegregate federal housing in 1961, James Meredith’s 1962 bid for a university education at Oxford, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the anti-poll tax amendment to the Constitution. Then riots took the movement in a different direction. It may be that similar things would have happened without Brown, though the riots, an inevitably violent struggle for rights, trouble in Northern cities, and a weakened Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey (the leader of the northern civil rights campaign in the Senate) would not have delivered in the way that things were delivered. African Americans would have still campaigned for rights, but without the backing of the most basic American factor, which is the understanding and support of the Constitution as defined by the Supreme Court. Progress would have been slower, more destructive, and more damaging, and segregationist arguments would have been much stronger.

It is therefore the case that the Supreme Court’s decision, guided by Chief Justice Warren, to desegregate in Brown v School Board of Topeka, Kansas, 1 & 2, was not only the most significant Supreme Court decision since Plessey (and almost, since Dred Scott) but the most significant factor in the unfolding of the Civil Rights movement.  

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