Excerpt: 'Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'

After the war, the NAACP turned its attention more energetically than before to the federal courts, where the country's leading race reform organization continued to batter the walls of institutionalized racial discrimination. In the late 1940s and 1950s, a series of successful cases brought against the persistent indignities of Jim Crow culminated in the momentous Supreme Court decision of 1954, which declared famously that separate educational facilities were "inherently unequal." With the successful verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, a once-impregnable barrier had fallen, and while obstacles to black liberation remained, it is easy to understand why the NAACP's Roy Wilkins described May 17, when the court's verdict came down, as "one of life's sweetest days."

The High Court's epic decision ordering the desegregation of public schools was the result of years of labor by the NAACP's legal division, headed by a talented lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court. Marshall built patiently on prior cases in which the NAACP had challenged the constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine, a misguided notion that had been enshrined by the Supreme Court in its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The NAACP legal team argued that separate facilities could never be equal and presented a considerable body of evidence to support this claim.

Chief Justice Earl Warren worked hard to ensure the court would speak with one voice, and in a 9-0 ruling, the court held that segregation in public education denied African Americans their rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. While the ruling represented a stunning victory for the civil rights movement, the court allowed the states and school districts to devise specific remedies to the problem. Not surprisingly, this plan generated years of heated, bitter, and sometimes violent confrontations between civil rights leaders and local and state officials who were utterly determined to prevent the full realization of the Supreme Court's decision.

In state after state, the NAACP brought suits demanding an end to segregation, and even when the courts ordered a school district to do so, local officials rarely enforced such rulings, remaining unwilling to comply with judicial decisions. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in the fall of 1957, Governor Orval Faubus refused to enforce a federal court order to admit African American students to the city's public schools. After weeks of failed negotiations, President Eisenhower reluctantly federalized the Guard, ordering guardsmen to escort and protect black children who walked through the hate-filled mobs that had surrounded one of Little Rock's schools. No firebrand on civil rights, Dwight Eisenhower was compelled by events to act. (As the tapes in this book document, a similar crisis would confront John Kennedy five years later, when James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, a bastion of southern segregation.)

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