April 9th, 1951
Florida Sheriff Shoots Two Black Defendants After Supreme Court Overturns Convictions
On April 9, 1951, the United States Supreme Court overturned the convictions and death sentences of Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two black men wrongly convicted of the rape of a white woman in Groveland, Florida. The Court held that the men were entitled to new trials because black people had been excluded from serving on their juries.
NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall represented Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Irvin in appealing their death sentences. The case originally had four black defendants, but one of the young men was lynched by a mob prior to trial, and the youngest defendant, at just 16 years old, had been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. In Sheriff Willis McCall’s custody while awaiting their first trial, the three defendants had been brutally beaten and tortured in the Lake County Jail. Following the reversal of Shepherd’s and Irvin’s convictions, Sheriff McCall volunteered to personally transport the men back to the Lake County Jail from Florida State Prison for retrial.
En route to the jail, on November 6, 1951, McCall shot Shepherd and Irvin. McCall later claimed that Shepherd and Irvin, handcuffed to each other in the back of the police car, attempted to attack him when he stopped on a deserted road to check the vehicle’s tires. McCall shot both men.
Mr. Shepherd died instantly from his wounds. Deputy James Yates, who was summoned to the scene, observed that Mr. Irvin was wounded but still alive, and shot him again in the neck. Yates and McCall then ripped McCall’s clothing and struck a blow to his head to substantiate his self defense claims. After multiple people arrived at the scene, someone observed that Mr. Irvin was miraculously still alive, and he ultimately survived his injuries. Though Mr. Irvin told the NAACP and the FBI that McCall had shot him and Mr. Shepherd without cause, a coroner’s jury found that McCall had acted in self defense and cleared his name. McCall remained Lake County Sheriff until 1972, when he was indicted for the murder of another black prisoner.
Mr. Irvin was retried for rape, again convicted and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the Florida governor in 1955, and Mr. Irvin was released on parole in 1968. In 2012, FBI investigative documents surfaced showing that medical examinations of the alleged rape victim in 1949 revealed no evidence of assault. Surviving family members of the Groveland Four have since launched efforts to secure exonerations and an apology from the State of Florida.
December 31st, 1952
First Year in 70 Years With No Reported Lynchings in the United States
On December 31, 1952, for the first time in seventy years, a full year passed with no recorded incidents of lynching. Defined as open, non-judicial murders carried out by mobs, lynching befell people of many backgrounds in the United States but was a frequent tool of racial terror used against black Americans to enforce and maintain white supremacy.
Prior to 1881, reliable lynching statistics were not recorded. But the Chicago Tribune, the NAACP, and the Tuskegee Institute began keeping independent records of lynchings as early as 1882. As of 1952, these authorities reported that 4726 persons had been lynched in the United States over the prior seventy years and 3431 of them were African American. During some years in American history it was not unusual for all lynching victims to be African American.
Lynching in the United States was most common in the later decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, during post-reconstruction efforts to re-establish a racial hierarchy that subordinated and oppressed black people. Before the lynching-free year of 1952, annual lynching statistics were exhibiting significant reductions. Between 1943 and 1951 there were twenty-one lynchings reported nationwide, compared to 597 between 1913 and 1922. After 1952, the number of lynching incidents recorded annually continued to be zero or very low and the tracking of lynchings officially ended in 1968.
Though the diminished frequency of lynching signaled by the 1952 report was encouraging, the Tuskegee Institute warned that year that “other patterns of violence” were emerging, replacing lynchings with legalized acts of racialized inhumanity like executions, as well as more anonymous acts of violence such as bombings, arson, and beatings. Similarly, a 1953 editorial in the Times Daily of Florence, Alabama, noted that, though the decline in lynching was good news, the proliferation of anti-civil rights bombings demonstrated the South’s continued need for “education in human relations.”
May 17th, 1954
United States Supreme Court Declares Racial Segregation of Public Schools Unconstitutional
The Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education grew out of several cases challenging racial segregation in school districts across America, filed as part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's strategy to bar the practice nationwide. Because the lawsuits addressed the same legal questions, the United States Supreme Court consolidated them under the name of a case in which lead plaintiff, Oliver Brown, sued the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education on behalf of his daughter, Linda.
A black public school student in Topeka, Kansas, Linda Brown lived blocks from an elementary school but was forced to travel over an hour to reach the all-black school she was designated to attend. When she tried to enroll in the closer neighborhood school, which was all-white, the Board of Education denied her request.
In the United States Supreme Court, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued that segregated schools were harmful and left black children with feelings of inferiority. On May 17, 1954, the Court unanimously ruled that segregation in public education is unconstitutional, overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Relying on evidence of segregated facilities' negative psychological impact on black children, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
June 10th, 1954
Southern Governors Meet in Richmond, Virginia, to Plan Continued School Segregation
On June 10, 1954, governors and representatives from twelve Southern states met in Richmond, Virginia, and resolved not to voluntarily comply with the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, released less than a month earlier. Virginia Governor Thomas Stanley called the meeting to discuss potential approaches the Southern states could take in responding to Brown. The governors of Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi had publicly stated their intent to maintain the separation of white and black students, even if it required them to dissolve the public education systems in their respective states. The governors of Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia had been less radical but had expressed an interest in legal methods of avoiding integration.
Representatives met for six hours to discuss their concerns. In the end, only representatives from Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky - states with comparatively small African American populations - indicated they would comply with the desegregation order.
Said Governor Stanley of the meeting, "No one had any thought of doing anything wrong. Everyone is just trying to find a solution to what they consider a major problem." It was not until a later meeting of Southern governors, in January 1956, that Southern officials created a concrete plan for resisting Brown. At that meeting, four Southern governors agreed to interposition, by which a state can attempt to declare federal actions unconstitutional.
July 15th, 1954
Federal Government Targets Southwestern Mexican Communities for Deportation
At the direction of United States Attorney General Herbert Brownell and under the supervision of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Joseph Swing, the United States Border Patrol began the second phase of an immigration law enforcement initiative in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas on July 15, 1954. The program was officially called “Operation Wetback”; the pejorative term “wetback” referred to Mexican citizens who entered the United States by swimming across the Rio Grande River.
The operation first began against Mexican immigrants in California and Arizona one month earlier. It was born of Brownell’s belief that “the Mexican wetback problem was becoming increasingly serious" because Mexican immigrants were “displacing domestic workers, affecting work conditions, spreading disease, and contributing to crime rates.” INS deployed hundreds of border patrol agents to the Rio Grande Valley to locate and deport to Mexico anyone they suspected of being illegally present in the United States. The following September, INS initiated a similar operation in the Midwest.
Border agents' tactics included descending on Mexican American neighborhoods, demanding identification from “Mexican-looking” citizens on the street, invading private homes in the middle of the night, and raiding Mexican businesses. Agents often seized and deported those lawfully in the country without a hearing or oversight.
By the end of these crusades in California, Arizona, and Texas, as many as 200,000 Mexican immigrants had returned to Mexico, some on their own, but most under border patrol escort. According to some reports, INS had deported one million Mexican immigrants nationwide by the year’s end. These mandatory deportations were done at the deportee’s expense and cost some people all the money they had earned while working in the United States.
At the program’s close, Brownell praised it as successful, swift, and skillful, yet humane and fair.
April 12th, 1955
Researchers Announce Polio Vaccine, Developed from Henrietta Lacks’s Cells
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. and Dr. Jonas Salk announced the successful results of the first polio vaccine. Researchers developed the vaccine using cells from the HeLa cell line, cells derived from the cancerous tissues of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who died in 1951 from cervical cancer. Ms. Lacks’s cells became the foundation for many medical innovations in the latter half of the 20th century, all without her family's consent or knowledge.
When Lacks, a Baltimore resident, came to Johns Hopkins Hospital seeking medical attention, doctors discovered a lump on her cervix. After she died several months later, leaving behind a husband and young children, researchers discovered that her cancerous cells continued to reproduce in petri dishes every 24 hours – the first “immortal” cell line in history. The cells derived from Lacks’s body were named “the HeLa Line” and served as the foundation for many medical advances, including cancer and HIV/AIDS research, generating billions of dollars.
In the years that Mrs. Lacks’s cells were being used for research, the Lacks family was never notified or compensated for this use, nor were they asked for their consent. They first learned of the immortal cells more than twenty years after Mrs. Lacks’s death, when scientists sought to conduct research on her children to learn more about the HeLa cells.
May 7th, 1955
Rev. George Lee Fatally Shot After Attempting to Register to Vote in Belzoni, Mississippi
Reverend George Lee, co-founder of Belzoni, Mississippi's NAACP chapter and the first African American to register to vote in Humphreys County since Reconstruction, is considered one of the first martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Lee first moved to Belzoni to preach and had been working to register other African Americans to vote since the NAACP chapter's 1953 founding; he later served as chapter president. Rev. Lee registered some 100 African American voters in Belzoni, an extraordinary feat considering the significant risk of violent retaliation facing black voters in the Deep South at the time.
Belzoni's White Citizen's Council became aware of Rev. Lee's voter registration efforts and unsuccessfully tried to stop him using threats and intimidation. On the night of May 7, 1955, Rev. Lee was driving home when bullets were fired into the cab of his car, ripping off the lower half of his face. He later died at Humphreys County Medical Center. When NAACP field secretary for Mississippi Medgar Evers came to investigate the death, the county sheriff told him that Rev. Lee had died in a car accident and the lead bullets found in his jaw were dental fillings.
According to FBI records, efforts to bring murder charges against two members of the White Citizen's Council stalled when the local prosecutor resisted taking the case further. Rev. Lee had an open casket funeral, and the NAACP memorial service held in his honor brought more than 1000 mourners to Belzoni.
August 13th, 1955
Voting Rights Activist Lamar Smith Murdered in Mississippi
On the morning of August 13, 1955, Lamar Smith, a 63-year-old African American farmer and veteran of World War I, was shot and killed in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi, while encouraging African Americans to vote in a local run-off election. Smith, a locally known voting rights advocate affiliated with the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, had been threatened and warned to stop trying to register and organize African American voters in the community. These threats were realized when Smith was murdered on the courthouse lawn in front of dozens of witnesses, including Sheriff Robert E. Case, who permitted one of the alleged assailants to leave the crime scene covered in blood. Days later, that man and two others were arrested in connection with the shooting. All three suspects were white.
In September 1955, a grand jury composed of 20 white men declined to indict the three suspects for murder after witnesses failed to come forward to testify. Following the grand jury’s report, District Attorney E.C. Barlow criticized the lack of witness cooperation and complained about the sheriff’s handling of the case. Despite Barlow’s public promises to proceed with the investigation, the criminal case against the three suspects was dismissed. No one was punished for the crime.
Smith’s death was one of several racially-motivated killings in Mississippi that year, including the May 1955 murder of civil rights leader George Lee in Belzoni; the abduction and murder of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955; and the fatal shooting of Gus Courts in Belzoni in December 1955. Throughout the next decade and beyond, Mississippi would be known as one of the most violent and deadly environments in the fight for equal rights.
August 28th, 1955
Emmett Till, 14-year-old Chicago Youth, Abducted and Murdered in Mississippi Delta
On August 20, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till boarded a train in Chicago, Illinois, headed for Money, Mississippi, to spend two weeks with his great-uncle and cousins. A few days into his visit, Till and a group of friends went into a nearby store to buy candy. While there, Till allegedly acted “familiar” when speaking to the white female storekeeper, Carolyn Bryant. This was a dangerous transgression in the racial caste system of the Mississippi Delta, a system of which Chicago-bred Emmett Till was largely unaware. Within a few days, word of the interaction reached Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.
On August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Emmett Till at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s home and drove him to a storage shed on Milam’s property in Drew, Mississippi. Each man took turns torturing and beating Till with a pistol, then took the battered boy to a nearby ginning company and forced him to load a 74-pound fan into the back of their pick-up truck. The men then drove Till to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, ordered him to remove his clothes, and shot him in the head. Bryant and Milam then attached the heavy fan to the child's neck and rolled his body into the river.
On August 31, 1955, Emmett Till’s corpse was discovered by two young boys. Devastated by her son’s brutal murder and badly disfigured body, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, defiantly held an open-casket funeral in Chicago, where thousands gazed in horror at his mutilated body. To show the world the fate that had befallen Emmett, Mrs. Bradley also distributed a photograph of his corpse for publication in newspapers and magazines, later explaining that “the whole nation had to bear witness to this.”
(Emmett Till with his mother before he left for Mississippi, 1955. Library of Congress.)
September 23rd, 1955
All-White Jury Acquits Murderers of Emmett Till
In September 1955, half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were indicted for murder in connection with the abduction and brutal slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago teen killed just weeks before while visiting family members in Sumner County, Mississippi. The men allegedly targeted Till after he “insulted” Bryant’s wife.
The trial took place over the course of three days. The State presented courageous testimony from Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s great-uncle who witnessed his abduction, and Willie Reed, an African American sharecropper who overheard Bryant and Milam torturing Till. The defense claimed that the mutilated body discovered in the Tallahatchie River was not that of Emmett Till. After deliberating for just over one hour, an all-white, all-male jury announced a not-guilty verdict on September 23, 1955. A grand jury in the county where Till was abducted refused to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, although Bryant had confessed that act to police. After two fruitless attempts to prosecute Bryant and Milam for the killing, Wright and Reed fled Mississippi for their own safety.
Seven years after the acquittal, 21-year-old graduate student Hugh Stephen Whitaker interviewed jurors, witnesses, and attorneys who confirmed what many suspected, that Bryant and Milam were never at risk of conviction. In fact, all but one juror said they had rejected the defense theory and most believed Bryant and Milam were guilty of killing young Emmett Till. The jurors said they had chosen to acquit because the mandatory punishment -- life imprisonment or death -- seemed too harsh to impose upon white men for killing a black boy.
November 7th, 1955
U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Ruling Outlawing Racial Segregation in Public Recreational Facilities
In Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Dawson, African Americans living in Baltimore, Maryland, sued the city’s mayor and city council for maintaining racially segregated, publicly-funded beaches and parks. A federal district court initially dismissed the complaint, holding that the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson permitted racial segregation as long as the facilities or services involved were substantially equal between races.
On March 14, 1955, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned that ruling, rejecting the city’s argument that racial segregation was justified as a means of ensuring order and avoiding racial conflict. In its decision, the Fourth Circuit held that “segregation cannot be justified as a means to preserve the public peace merely because the tangible facilities furnished to one race are equal to those furnished by the other.” In the view of the court, legal support for the doctrine of “separate but equal” had been swept away by recent landmark Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. Board of Education, decided the previous year.
The City of Baltimore appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. On November 7, 1955, the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision in a per curiam order endorsing the lower court’s rejection of segregation in public recreational facilities and adopting its decision as national, binding precedent.
November 25th, 1955
Federal Agency Bans Racial Segregation in Interstate Transportation
On November 25, 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), a federal agency that regulates railroads and other transporters of goods, banned racial segregation on interstate buses, train lines, and in waiting rooms. The ICC ruled that “the disadvantages to a traveler who is assigned accommodations or facilities so designated as to imply his inferiority solely because of his race must be regarded under present conditions as unreasonable.” The ban was consistent with a 1946 United States Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, which held that a state law requiring segregation on interstate buses traveling through the state was unconstitutional.
However, neither the Supreme Court decision nor the ICC ban covered intrastate travel, and 13 states still required segregation on buses and railways that traveled exclusively within state borders. Some of these states ignored the new ban on segregated interstate travel and continued to enforce unconstitutional laws. According to a report issued by the Public Affairs Research Committee in December 1957, police in Flomaton, Alabama, had been called to arrest African Americans traveling in the white section of an interstate railroad line. The report additionally found that employees of rail and bus lines in Alabama “have flagrantly segregated colored travelers or called police to arrest those who would not easily be intimidated where their rights were involved.”
It was not until November 1961, six years after the ICC ban, that it was given force by order of the ICC and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, largely spurred by the Freedom Rides.
December 1st, 1955
Rosa Parks Arrested for Violating Laws Mandating Racial Segregation on Buses
On December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress and activist Rosa Parks was arrested, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most well-known campaigns of the civil rights movement. Less well known is that Parks's work for racial justice long preceded her arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. She was very active in the local chapter of the NAACP, having joined as the chapter’s only woman member in 1943, and served as both the youth leader and secretary. Parks frequently traveled throughout Alabama to interview black people who had suffered racial terror, violence, or other injustice. In 1944, she investigated an Abbeville, Alabama, gang-rape of a young black woman and joined with other civil rights activists in the area to launch an unsuccessful campaign to have the white men responsible prosecuted for the assault.
On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks began her bus ride home from work sitting in the “colored section.” Montgomery’s segregated bus service designated separate seating areas for black and white passengers; during peak operating hours, if the white seating area became full, the bus driver could expand its boundaries and request that African Americans stand to relinquish their seats to whites. While blacks were not legally obligated to comply, city bus drivers were notorious for their hostile treatment of black riders and their requests were rarely refused.
As more white passengers boarded, the bus driver asked Parks and three other seated African Americans to give up their seats to whites. Parks refused and was eventually arrested. She later recalled that she had refused to stand, not because she was physically tired but because she was tired of giving in. On the night of her arrest, local activists began organizing what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
January 24th, 1956
Emmett Till's Killers Confess in Look Magazine Article
On January 24, 1956, Look magazine published "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi," which detailed the August 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old from Chicago who was savagely beaten, shot, and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman, outside a local country store in the Mississippi Delta.
J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant graphically detailed for the article their abduction of Emmett Till from his uncle's home, admitting that they pistol-whipped him, forced him to disrobe, tied a heavy cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, shot him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. Look magazine reportedly paid Milam and Bryant $4000 for their confessions, given months after they had been acquitted by an all-white jury in Sumner, Mississippi.
Look magazine published a follow-up article one year later entitled "What's Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?" and reported that many black residents had stopped patronizing stores owned by the Milam and Bryant families, causing the businesses to close.
Milam and Bryant later died of cancer. In 2004, the United States Department of Justice reopened the case amid reports that other people, some still alive, had participated in Emmett Till's murder. In 2005, the FBI exhumed Till's body and performed an autopsy. In 2007, a grand jury decided not to seek indictments against any additional individuals.
January 30th, 1956
Dr. Martin Luther King's House Bombed
On the evening of January 10, 1956, one month after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Montgomery, Alabama, home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed while his wife Coretta, seven-week-old daughter Yolanda, and a neighbor were inside. No one was injured but the front of the house was damaged.
Dr. King was speaking at a large meeting when he learned about the bombing. He rushed home to find some 300 African Americans gathered outside, some carrying weapons and preparing to take action in his defense. The crowd cheered Dr. King's arrival. The mayor and police commissioner urged the crowd to remain calm and promised the bombing would be fully investigated.
Dr. King confirmed his family was safe and then addressed the anxious and angry crowd, many of whom were members of his church, advocating for nonviolence. "If you have weapons," he told them, " take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek them. We cannot solve this problem through violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence." The crowd dispersed peacefully after Dr. King assured them, "Go home and don't worry. We are not hurt, and remember, if anything happens to me there will be others to take my place."
February 3rd, 1956
University of Alabama's First Black Student Suspended After Whites Riot
In 1952, Autherine Lucy applied to the University of Alabama's graduate program in Library Sciences with the goal of becoming a librarian. After realizing that Ms. Lucy was African American, the university denied her enrollment, sparking a three-year legal battle led by the NAACP. The battle appeared to end favorably for Ms. Lucy in 1955 when the United States Supreme Court ordered the University of Alabama to accept her, making her the university's first African American student. Unfortunately, Ms. Lucy's fight to desegregate the University of Alabama and obtain a graduate education was far from over.
On February 3, 1956, Ms. Lucy registered and attended her first classes at the university, passing burning crosses and crowds of hostile students on her way to and from class. On February 6, 1956, the environment around Ms. Lucy descended into a full-scale riot. Thousands of angry white students and community members gathered on campus and followed Ms. Lucy, hurling threats, racial slurs, eggs, and rocks at her as she passed between classes. The unrestrained mob eventually trapped Ms. Lucy in a dormitory until, hours later, she was rescued by police.
That evening, university officials suspended Ms. Lucy, citing safety concerns. Ms. Lucy's legal team challenged the suspension and initially accused the university of enabling the rioters in order to orchestrate Ms. Lucy's removal. Despite a court order to reinstate Ms. Lucy, university trustees voted to expel her for her accusations of conspiracy, ending Ms. Lucy's efforts to desegregate the university.
February 21st, 1956
The Road to the Montgomery Bus Boycott
African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, began boycotting city buses in December 1955 to protest the poor treatment black passengers received on the segregated vehicles. On February 21, 1956, a Montgomery grand jury indicted 89 leaders of the boycott, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, for violating a 1921 state statute forbidding boycotts without "just cause."
Grand jurors repudiated anti-segregation efforts in the grand jury report that accompanied the indictment. "In this state we are committed to segregation by custom and law; we intend to maintain it," the grand jury wrote. "The settlement of differences over school attendance, public transportation and other facilities must be made within those laws which reflect our way of life."
As the indicted boycott leaders surrendered themselves into custody at the police station, hundreds of African American supporters gathered outside in a show of support for their efforts to challenge racial discrimination and fight segregation in Alabama.
Of those indicted, only Dr. King was prosecuted. Despite defense evidence showing that the boycott was peaceful and that discriminatory bus service inflicted harm on the African American community, Dr. King was quickly convicted, fined $1000, and given a suspended jail sentence of one year at hard labor.
The indictment and Dr. King's conviction strengthened local African Americans' resolve to fight segregation and attracted national attention to the growing civil rights movement.
March 12th, 1956
The Southern Manifesto
By March 12, 1956, Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia had convinced 101 of the 128 congressmen from Southern states, representing eleven states of the old Confederacy, to sign "The Southern Manifesto on Integration." The document claimed that the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racially segregated public education unconstitutional, constituted an abuse of power in violation of federal law.
The manifesto accused the Court of jeopardizing the social justice of white people and "their habits, traditions, and way of life" and claimed that the Brown ruling would "[destroy] the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races," referring to the era of racial terror and a Jim Crow legal caste system that had been reality for most black Americans since the end of Reconstruction.
Eight southern states - Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia - enacted their own versions of the Southern Manifesto, called "interposition resolutions," which tried to elevate the state's legal interpretation over that of the Supreme Court. These states also used legislative acts and voter referenda to enact tuition grant statutes that authorized state governments to fund privately-run schools in order to preserve racially segregated education.
March 28th, 1956
Churches Observe National Deliverance Day of Prayer in Support of Montgomery Bus Boycott
After Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, the local black community launched a boycott of the city bus system. Organizers and participants of the bus boycott faced harassment, threats, and arrest but continued their efforts and gained national attention.
As a means of publicizing and encouraging support of the ongoing boycott and other anti-discrimination efforts, Adam Clayton Powell organized a National Deliverance Day of Prayer on March 28, 1956. Rev. Powell, a black minister and congressman from New York, urged participants throughout the country to "pray for the deliverance of all who suffer from persecution and we for the salvation of all who are afflicted with racial prejudice." Rev. Powell initially proposed the day should include a one-hour work stoppage, but other religious leaders rejected the idea as unnecessarily disruptive.
On the Day of Prayer, Rev. Powell led 5000 people in a rally and prayer meeting in Manhattan. Many other New York churches also held large services and 28,000 people attended similar events in Chicago. Churches and synagogues in Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, Cleveland, Columbus, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, and Galveston held services and collected funds to support the Montgomery boycott. In Chino, California, nine black men who followed Rev. Powell's original call and stopped work for one hour to pray in support of the boycott were fired from an aircraft repair plant for "insubordination."
April 10th, 1956
Nat King Cole Attacked by White Men While Performing in Birmingham, Alabama
On April 10, 1956, African American singer and pianist Nat King Cole was performing before a white-only audience of 4000 at the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, when he was attacked and knocked down by a group of white men. The attack happened so quickly that some audience members believed the attackers had rushed the stage to attack a drunk man near the front row who had been jeering at Mr. Cole, "Negro, go home." Police present at the concert in case of trouble apprehended Cole's attackers quickly. Four men were charged with inciting a riot while two others were held for questioning. Outside the arena, officers later found a car containing rifles, a blackjack, and brass knuckles.
Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919 and moved with his family to Chicago as a child. He was a popular national performer in 1956 and, in observance of Birmingham's racial segregation laws, had scheduled separate performances for white and black audiences. The night before the attack, he performed before a segregated audience in Mobile, Alabama, and was booed by scattered members of the crowd.
After the attack during the Birmingham whites-only show, Mr. Cole returned to the stage and received a ten-minute standing ovation but did not finish the concert. "I just came here to entertain you," he told the crowd. "That was what I thought you wanted. I was born in Alabama. Those folks hurt my back. I cannot continue, because I need to see a doctor." After being examined by a physician, Mr. Cole went on to perform at the scheduled blacks-only show later that night.
May 13th, 1956
Four White Men Kidnap and Rape Black Girl in Tylertown, Mississippi
On May 13, 1956, sixteen-year-old Annette Butler of Tylertown, Mississippi, was kidnapped and gang raped by four white men. Ms. Butler and her family reported the assault and the men were arrested, jailed, and tried for the crime – a rarity in Mississippi for white men charged with assaulting black women. Despite a confession, all-white juries refused to convict three of the four defendants, and the fourth was allowed to plead to a reduced charge in exchange for a sentence of twenty years hard labor.
Near dawn on May 13 (Mother’s Day), Ernest Dillon, his brother Ollie, and their cousins Olen and Durora Duncan set out looking for “colored women.” When they found the Butler home where Annette Butler was staying with her mother, Ernest claimed he was a police officer and told Ms. Butler she was under arrest. Ernest then forced her into the car, while another of the four men kept a gun trained on her mother. The men then drove Ms. Butler to the nearby Bogue Chitto swamp and took turns raping her. When the men were finished they left her alone and half-dressed in the woods. She sought help from a group of black fishermen working nearby and they notified the police.
When the men were apprehended, the district attorney charged them with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Upon his arrest, Olen Duncan signed a statement admitting his guilt. Judge Tom Brady, a known white supremacist, presided over the trials and appointed Mississippi’s best lawyers to represent the men. The defense attempted to reduce sympathy toward Ms. Butler by accusing her of being a prostitute and presented white witnesses to testify she had a poor reputation.
At that time in Mississippi, the crime of rape was punishable by death or life imprisonment. In order to avoid either of those fates, on March 26, 1957, Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and later received a sentence of twenty years imprisonment. At sentencing, Judge Brady, a staunch opponent of interracial sexual relations whether consensual or forced, expressed no concern about the crime’s impact on young Ms. Butler but castigated Mr. Dillon for committing a crime that “had brought bitter condemnation on the State of Mississippi.”
None of the other three attackers received prison time for the rape of Annette Butler: Ollie Dillon was permitted to plead solely to a kidnapping charge; Olen Duncan pleaded not guilty despite his confession and was acquitted by an all-white jury; and charges against Durora Duncan, who pleaded not guilty, were thrown out after his trial resulted in a hung jury.
August 25th, 1956
Montgomery, Alabama, Home of Bus Boycott Supporter Bombed
On the night of April 25, 1956, several sticks of dynamite were thrown into the yard of Pastor Robert Graetz’s Montgomery, Alabama, home where they exploded, breaking the home's front windows and damaging the front door. A young white minister serving the city’s primarily African American Trinity Lutheran Church, Pastor Graetz was a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the community group that had planned and guided the city’s bus boycott to protest racially discriminatory treatment toward black bus riders. Pastor Graetz had been an outspoken supporter of the ongoing bus boycott since it began on December 5, 1955, and was known to regularly provide transportation to boycott participants traveling to and from work.
At the time of the explosion, Pastor Graetz was attending an integration workshop in Tennessee. His wife and children were not at home and no one was injured in the blast. In January 1956, the Montgomery homes of local minister Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and E.D. Nixon, former president of the local NAACP, were bombed. Both men were active boycott leaders.
In response to the bombing of Paster Graetz's home, Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gayle called it an inside job and claimed the attack was “just a publicity stunt to build up interest of the Negroes in their campaign . . . This latest bombing follows the usual pattern. It’s a strange coincidence that when interest appears to be flagging in the bus boycott something like this happens.” No one was arrested, charged, or convicted for the attack.
August 30th, 1956
Riots Prevent School Desegregation in Mansfield, Texas
In 1956, Mansfield, Texas, was a small farming town of 1500 people. Its schools were strictly segregated and facilities for black students were run-down and under-funded. Before the start of the 1956-1957 school year, in compliance with a federal desegregation order and the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision barring racial segregation in schools, the Mansfield school board approved a plan to admit 12 black students to all-white Mansfield High School. However, many local white residents opposed integration and some took to the streets in protest.
On August 30, 1956, the first day of school, mobs of white pro-segregationists guarded Mansfield High School and patrolled the streets threatening to use guns and other weapons to prevent black children from registering. Outside the school, the mob hung an African American effigy at the top of the school’s flag pole and set it on fire. Attached to one pant leg of the effigy was a sign that read, “This Negro tried to enter a white school. This would be a terrible way to die.” On the other leg, a sign read, “Stay Away, Niggers.” A second effigy was hung on the front of the school building.
In response, Texas Governor Allan Shivers sent six Texas Rangers to Mansfield with instructions to “maintain law and order” and transfer any students “white or colored, whose attendance or attempts to attend Mansfield High School would be reasonably calculated to incite violence.” Soon afterward, the Mansfield School Board voted to “exhaust all legal remedies to delay segregation.” Though the United States Supreme Court in December 1956 rejected the Mansfield school district’s request to delay integration due to local opposition, resistance and non-compliance continued for years. Mansfield, Texas, public schools did not officially desegregate until 1965.
October 20th, 1956
Bus Boycott Supporters in Tallahassee, Florida, Are Jailed
Modeled after the Montgomery bus boycott, the Tallahassee bus boycott began after a May 17, 1956, incident in which two Florida A&M students were arrested for sitting in the white section of a city bus. Because the city’s buses were primarily patronized by African American residents, the boycott left the vehicles nearly empty. In July 1956, city officials were forced to suspend bus service due to lost revenue. The bus company resumed services in August following an initiative led by the Junior Chamber of Commerce to get more white residents to ride the buses but the boycott continued. The Tallahassee Inter-Civic Council (ICC) led the boycott and organized a carpool to serve as alternative transportation.
In October 1956, 21 carpool drivers, including nine people who comprised the ICC's executive committee, were arrested for not having “for hire” tags on their vehicles. On October 20, 1956, following a three-and-a-half-day trial, all 21 drivers were convicted. City Judge John Rudd sentenced them to pay a $500 fine or spend 60 days in jail, in addition to a suspended 60-day jail term and one year on probation.
Faced with this legal harassment, the ICC voted to end the carpool two days later. The boycott continued until December, however, ending only after federal courts ruled bus segregation unconstitutional. On January 7, 1957, the Tallahassee City Commission repealed the city’s bus segregation law.
December 21st, 1956
Montgomery Bus Boycotts Ends; Buses Desegregate
After Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955 for refusing a city bus driver’s instruction to relinquish her seat to white passengers, Montgomery, Alabama, activists organized a boycott of city buses to protest the poor treatment of black passengers. Originally, the bus boycott was to last for a single day, coinciding with Parks’s civil court appearance. But the boycott turned out to be much more successful than organizers anticipated, with an estimated 17,000 African Americans refusing to ride the buses. Inspired by the community’s enthusiastic response, organizers decided to extend the boycott, and a young Montgomery minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was appointed as spokesman.
Initially, those participating in the bus boycott met only mild resistance; many white citizens offered to drive their black employees to work to ensure the demonstration would not interfere with their job attendance. However, as the boycott continued and the protesters’ power to leverage their aggregate economic strength became apparent, the response grew violent. The homes of prominent figures associated with the boycott were bombed, including those of Reverend King, NAACP President E.D. Nixon, and Pastor Robert Graetz. Legal harassment also was prevalent, as police jailed more than 89 boycott leaders in an effort to intimidate protestors.
Shortly after the boycott began, organizers filed Browder v. Gayle, a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregated buses. The suit worked its way through the courts as the boycott continued, and on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that public bus segregation was unconstitutional and ordered Montgomery buses to integrate. On December 21, 1956, one day after the court’s order was served on the Montgomery bus system, the boycott ended and the city’s black citizens resumed riding the now-integrated buses.
December 25th, 1956
Civil Rights Leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Home Bombed by KKK
On December 25, 1956, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Birmingham, Alabama, home of civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Shuttlesworth was home at the time of the bombing with his family and two members of Bethel Baptist Church, where he served as pastor. The 16-stick dynamite blast destroyed the home and caused damage to Shuttlesworth’s church next door but no one inside the home suffered serious injury. White supremacists would attempt to murder Shuttlesworth four more times in the next seven years, including one 1957 incident in which a white mob brutally beat Shuttlesworth with chains and bats and stabbed his wife after the couple attempted to enroll their daughters in an all-white high school.
Shuttlesworth became a popular target of white supremacists in the early 1950s after assuming leadership of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. As founder and president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, Shuttlesworth organized and participated in numerous protests and boycotts challenging Jim Crow customs and policies in Birmingham and across the South.
A day before the Christmas bombing, Shuttlesworth had called upon local African Americans to desegregate the city buses starting on December 26. Undeterred by the Klan’s assassination attempt, Shuttlesworth proceeded as planned with the December 26 protest rides. Shuttlesworth was involved in nearly every pivotal civil rights event of the 1960s, including the 1961 Freedom Rides and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in May 1963. His tireless activism in the face of violent opposition led Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to describe him as “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.”
December 28th, 1956
Pregnant Woman Shot While Riding Desegregated Bus in Montgomery, Alabama
From December 1, 1955, until December 20, 1956, black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted the city bus system to protest their poor treatment on the racially segregated buses. Participants faced threats, violence, and harassment, but were ultimately victorious in December 1956 when the United States Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle and ordered desegregation.
The black community returned to the buses but faced the threat of violence from some whites who resented the boycott and its results. In a terrifying development, snipers began to target the buses soon after integrated riding commenced. On the evening of December 28, 1956, shots were fired into a desegregated bus traveling through an African American neighborhood. Rosa Jordan, a 22-year-old black woman who was eight months pregnant, was shot in both legs while sitting in the rear of the bus. She was transported to Oak Street General Hospital, but doctors were hesitant to remove a bullet lodged in her leg, fearing it could cause Jordan to give birth prematurely. She was told she would have to remain in the hospital for the duration of her pregnancy. After the bus driver and passengers were questioned at police headquarters, the bus resumed service. Less than an hour later, in approximately the same neighborhood, the bus was again targeted by snipers but no one was hit.
These shootings followed two earlier sniper attacks on Montgomery buses that occurred the week before but targeted buses carrying no passengers and resulted in no injuries. On the night of Jordan’s shooting, Montgomery Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers ordered all buses to end service for the night. The following day, three city commissioners met with a bus company official and decided to suspend all night bus service after 5:00 p.m. until after the New Year’s holiday. The curfew policy did not end until January 22, 1957.
January 13th, 1957
Four Alabama Congregations Hold Services After Churches Are Bombed
On January 13, 1957, three days after four black churches and two pastors' homes were bombed in Montgomery, Alabama, the congregations held Sunday services amidst the debris.
The bombings, which injured no one but caused significant damage, came at a time of racial tension and civil rights progress in Montgomery. Less than a month before, a year-long boycott protesting racial segregation on city buses ended after achieving desegregation. Some local whites were threatened by this victory and reacted with acts of terrorism.
All four black churches bombed - Bell Street Baptist Church, Hutchinson Street Baptist Church, First Street Baptist Church, and Mt. Olive Church - had supported the bus boycott and the targeted pastors were civil rights leaders: Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy of First Street Baptist Church was a prominent boycott leader and proponent of desegregation and Reverend Robert Graetz, white minister of the predominantly black Trinity Lutheran Church, actively supported the bus boycott.
Two days after the bombings, Reverend Abernathy announced plans for Sunday service, telling a reporter that "despite the wreckage and broken windows we will gather as usual at our church" and offer special prayers for "those who would desecrate the house of God."
Two white men affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, Raymond Britt and Sonny Livingston, were indicted in February 1957 after confessing to the bombings. An all-white jury acquitted them of all charges in May 1957, while spectators cheered.
January 23rd, 1957
Klansmen Abduct and Lynch Black Man in Montgomery, Alabama
Just before midnight on January 23, 1957, four Klansmen forced Willie Edwards Jr. to jump to his death from the Tyler Goodwin Bridge near Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Edwards, a black resident of Montgomery, was driving back from his first assignment as a deliveryman for a Winn-Dixie grocery store when he stopped for a soft drink. As he read his log book under the console light in his truck, four armed white men approached the vehicle, forced Mr. Edwards to exit the truck at gunpoint, and ordered him to get into their car.
Accusing Mr. Edwards of “offending a white woman,” the men proceeded to shove and slap him as they drove. One man pointed his gun at Mr. Edwards and threatened to castrate him. Sobbing and begging the men not to harm him, Mr. Edwards repeatedly denied having said anything to any white woman. Eventually the men reached the bridge and ordered Mr. Edwards out of the car. Ordered to “hit the water” or be shot, Mr. Edwards climbed the railing of the bridge and fell 125 feet to his death.
The next morning, Mr. Edwards’s truck was found in the store parking lot, the console light still on. Mr. Edwards’ pregnant twenty-three-year-old wife, Sarah Salter, was left to raise their two young daughters. Initially hopeful that her husband may have left for California, where he had always wanted to go, Mrs. Salters learned three months later that her husband was dead when two fisherman found his decomposed body in April 1957.
Nearly twenty years later, in 1976, Attorney General Bill Baxley prosecuted three known Klansmen for Mr. Edwards’s murder, after a fourth man confessed in exchange for immunity. After the indictments were quashed twice for failure to specify a cause of death, the FBI informed Baxley that one of the men charged, Henry Alexander, was their primary Klan informant in the area and asked Baxley to give him “some consideration.” Alexander had been indicted for four church bombings, the bombings of two homes, and the assault of a black woman riding on a bus but he was never prosecuted. Baxley abandoned their case against the men and all charges were dropped.
Not until 1993, when Alexander confessed to his wife on his deathbed that he and three other Klansmen were responsible for “the truck driver’s” death, did the truth of Mr. Edwards’ last moments come to light. Alexander told his wife, “That man never hurt anybody. I was just running my mouth. I caused it.” In 1997, the Alabama Department of Vital Statistics changed Mr. Edwards’s cause of death from “unknown” to “homicide.” A 1999 Montgomery County grand jury declined to indict any of the surviving suspects for the murder of Willie Edwards Jr.
April 6th, 1958
Execution of Wrongfully Convicted Black Teen Jeremiah Reeves Sparks Protest in Montgomery
On November 10, 1952, Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black high school student and jazz drummer, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, and interrogated about the rape of Mabel Ann Crowder the previous July. Ms. Crowder, a white woman, had claimed rape after she and was discovered in her home having sex with Jeremiah – sex many in the black community suspected was part of a consensual, ongoing affair. Within minutes of his arrest, Jeremiah was taken to Kilby Prison where, during “questioning” by police, he was strapped into the electric chair and told that he would be electrocuted unless he admitted committing all of the rapes of white women reported that summer. The fearful boy soon confessed to the charges against him.
The local NAACP chapter became involved in his case and attracted the attention of national leadership, including lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Marshall and other counsel won reversal of Jeremiah’s conviction on December 6, 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge at Jeremiah’s first trial was wrong to prevent the jury from hearing evidence of how his confession was obtained.
While winding its way through the courts, Jeremiah’s case also became a flashpoint for Montgomery’s nascent civil rights movement. Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at fifteen for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a Birmingham bus in March 1955, was inspired to take that protest action as a show of support for Jeremiah, her friend and schoolmate. Claudette later became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that led the Supreme Court to order buses desegregated in 1956. Rosa Parks also corresponded with Jeremiah and got his poetry published in the Birmingham World; she went on to repeat Colvin’s gesture in December 1955, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott.
In the second trial, in June 1955, Jeremiah was again convicted and sentenced to death. All appeals were unsuccessful and he was executed on March 28, 1958, at age 22. Jeremiah had spent much of his time in prison writing poetry, and he willed his final poem to his mother.
On April 6, 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at an Easter rally in Montgomery on the marked spot on the Capitol steps where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861. In his speech, Dr. King protested the unequal treatment of white and black defendants and victims in the courts, and concluded: “Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.”
The Ku Klux Klan tried to disrupt the rally, and afterward a group of thirty-nine local white ministers released a statement decrying the protesters’ “exaggerated emphasis on wrongs and grievances.”
June 17th, 1958
Fourteen Mexican Migrant Farmworkers Die in Burning Bus in Soledad, California
On June 17, 1958, a truck converted into a transport bus for Mexican migrant farmworkers caught fire, killing 14 and severely injuring 17. Fifty men were riding in the vehicle when two gasoline cans inside the bus caught fire, possibly from a cigarette. The bus had solid wooden sides and a metal top, and the only exits were two high rear gates that were chained shut from the outside. A passerby responding to the men’s screams was able to open only one of the rear gates, condemning the men on the other side of the truck. “I could hear the men praying in Spanish as I struggled with the chains,” he said.
The migrant farmworkers, known generally by the Spanish term “braceros,” had come to the United States through a federal program initiated in 1942 to alleviate labor shortages caused by World War II. The program continued after the war, as growers did not want the flow of cheap labor to stop. Over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands of braceros came to work in American fields, often enduring arduous, unsafe conditions.
The Soledad accident was one of over 1200 farm transportation accidents involving braceros between 1953 and 1962 in California alone; 159 braceros were killed in those accidents and almost 3000 were seriously injured. The greatest death toll occurred on September 17, 1963, when a train plowed into another makeshift bus carrying braceros in Chualar, California: 32 men were killed and 25 injured. Despite these accidents, state officials rarely took action to enforce safety regulations, let alone punish transgressors.
The bracero program ended in 1964, in large part due to union pressure to eliminate foreign competition for farmworker jobs and thus raise wages and improve working conditions for domestic farm laborers.
June 29th, 1958
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Bethel Street Baptist Church Bombed
Early in the morning of Sunday, June 29, 1958, a bomb exploded outside Bethel Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, located on the north side of town in one of the segregated city's African American neighborhoods. The church's pastor, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, was a civil rights activist working to eliminate segregation in Birmingham.
The church had been bombed before, on December 25, 1956, and since that date several volunteers had kept watch over the neighborhood every night. Around 1:30 a.m., Will Hall, who was on watch that night, was alerted to smoke coming from the church. He discovered a paint can containing dynamite near the church wall and carried it into the street before taking cover as it exploded.
The can contained between fifteen and twenty sticks of dynamite. The blast blew a two-foot hole in the street and broke the windows of houses in the vicinity as well as the stained glass windows of the church, which were still being repaired from the previous bombing. Police said there were few clues as to the culprit's identity, but a passerby reported seeing a car full of white men pass by shortly before the bomb was discovered. Rev. Shuttlesworth praised Mr. Hall for his brave actions, saying that if he had not moved the dynamite, it probably would have destroyed the entire church. "This shows that America has a long way to go before it can try be called democratic," he said.
September 27th, 1958
Little Rock Voters Choose to Close Public Schools Rather Than Integrate
Following the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, school boards across the country were ordered to draft desegregation plans. The school board in Little Rock, Arkansas, drafted a plan and agreed to implement it during the 1957-1958 school year. When nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, made their way to Central High School as part of Arkansas’s gradual desegregation plan, they were met by angry crowds and the Arkansas National Guard blocking their entry. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus encouraged the protestors and did everything in his power to hinder integration. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower deployed federal troops to Arkansas and commanded the Arkansas National Guard to escort the students to school.
Not yet through with his attempts to thwart integration, Faubus devised another plan. Following the 1957-1958 school year, the Little Rock School Board petitioned for a delay in the implementation of its desegregation plan. A federal district judge granted a delay until 1961, which the NAACP promptly appealed. The case made its way to the Supreme Court where, on September 12, 1958, the Court ordered immediate integration.
By that time, the Arkansas Legislature had passed a law allowing Governor Faubus to close public schools and later hold a special election to determine public support. Immediately after the Supreme Court released its decision, the governor ordered all four public high schools closed pending a public vote. On September 27, 1958, the people of Arkansas voted overwhelmingly (19,470 to 7561) to keep the schools closed rather than integrate. The schools would remain closed for the entire 1958-1959 academic term, known as “the lost year.”
October 14th, 1958
District of Columbia Bar Association Votes to Accept Black Lawyers for First Time
Attorneys in the District of Columbia were not required to belong to a professional bar association in the 1950s, but the District maintained several voluntary bar associations that lawyers could choose to join. The Bar Association of the District of Columbia became known as the “white bar,” while the Washington Bar Association served as the “black bar.” Washington has a long history of racial separation and in the Jim Crow era, mandatory segregation laws remained in force. While black and white lawyers practiced in the same courtrooms, most other facilities in the District remained separated by race and the bar associations furthered that custom. Even Washington’s law library, located within a federal courthouse, refused to admit African American attorneys.
The Bar Association of the District of Columbia finally desegregated due in a large part to the efforts of Charles S. Rhyne, a white man who ran for president of the organization on a pledge to desegregate. Though he faced intensely hostile reactions from many of his colleagues, Rhyne eventually was able to amend the bar association’s constitution and remove the race-based membership criteria. Several years later, on October 14, 1958, the Bar Association of the District Columbia voted to integrate and begin accepting African American members. The “black” Washington Bar Association nevertheless opted to continue operation, open to all but with a focus on the needs and concerns of black lawyers in Washington. Both associations still exist today.
November 24th, 1958
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Alabama Law Permitting De Facto Resegregation of Public Schools
On November, 24, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision in Shuttlesworth vs. Birmingham Board of Education, which rejected a challenge to Alabama’s School Placement Law. This law allowed Alabama school boards to designate student placement and continue racial segregation in schools -- outlawed in 1954 through Brown v. Board of Education – through a de facto process.
The lawsuit challenging the law was brought by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth on behalf of four African American students in Birmingham who sought admission to white schools that were closer to their homes than the schools at which they had been placed. In its unanimous decision, the court wrote, “The School Placement Law furnishes the legal machinery for an orderly administration of the public schools in a constitutional manner by the admission of qualified pupils upon a basis of individual merit without regard to their race or color. We must presume that it will be so administered.”
Alabama’s School Placement Law, which allowed the school boards to designate placement of students based on ability, availability of transportation, and academic background, was modeled after the Pupil Placement Act in North Carolina, which was enacted on March 30, 1955, in response to the Brown decision. Virginia passed the second placement law on September 29, 1956. In 1957, after the North Carolina law was upheld by a higher court, legislatures in other Southern states passed similar pupil placement laws; by 1960, such laws were on the books in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and the city of Atlanta, Georgia.
Between the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and 1958, a total of 376,000 African American children were enrolled in integrated schools in the South. This growth slowed significantly as states passed obstructive legislation, and the figure rose by just 500 students between 1958 and 1959. By October 1960, only six percent of African American children in the South were attending integrated schools.
January 6th, 1959
Richard and Mildred Loving Plead Guilty to Crime of Interracial Marriage
After marrying in Washington, D.C., in 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving returned to their native Caroline County, Virginia, to build a home and start a family. Their union was a criminal act in Virginia because Richard was white, Mildred was black, and the state's Racial Integrity Act, passed in 1924, criminalized interracial marriage.
Caroline County police arrested the Lovings in their home in an early morning raid and took them to jail. They were charged with marrying interracially out of state and then returning to reside in Virginia and "miscegenation," a felony, and faced up to five years in prison.
On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to both charges. The judge agreed to impose a suspended one-year prison sentence, so long as the couple left the state of Virginia for 25 years. Before entering judgment, Judge Leon Bazile condemned the Lovings' marriage and declared that God's decision to place the races on different continents demonstrated a divine intent to avoid intermarriage.
After their conviction and release, the Lovings relocated to Washington, D.C., but remained unsettled by their criminalization and exile. They later fought the law that had branded their love a crime and, on June 12, 1967, won a United States Supreme Court decision that would change the nation.
April 25th, 1959
Mack Charles Parker Lynched in Mississippi
In what some historians call the “last classic lynching in the United States,” Mack Charles Parker was killed on April 25, 1959, after he was accused of raping a pregnant white woman in Mississippi. Parker, a black man, denied the accusations and statements from those in the community suggested that the woman fabricated the rape claims to hide her consensual affair with a white man in a nearby town. Police officers garnered no conclusive evidence implicating Parker.
Days after Parker was transferred from the Hinds County Jail in Jackson to the Pearl River County Jail, a vigilante mob entered the jail and beat him. They then dragged Parker out of the jail while, bleeding profusely, he begged for his life. The mob drove to the Bogalusa bridge where they pulled Parker out of the car and shot him twice in the chest, killing him instantly. The mob then put chains around him and threw Parker into the Pearl River., where his body was found over a week later.
Despite an FBI investigation that identified many members of the lynch mob, no one was ever indicted in Parker's murder. All of the suspects have since died.
June 26th, 1959
Prince Edward County Closes Public Schools to Prevent Integration
In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court declared that racially separate schools were inherently unequal and violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. From 1956 to 1959, Virginia Senator Harry Flood Byrd called on the South to organize a program of massive resistance to school desegregation and refuse to fund schools that complied with the ruling. Virginia heeded that call in 1958, when Governor James Lindsay Almond, Jr. ordered the closing of public schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk. In January 1959, a federal district court declared Virginia's resistance efforts unconstitutional and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared they violated the state constitution.
On June 26, 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors nonetheless voted to close its public schools and later diverted public funds to private, white-only schools. When Prince Edward County schools closed, African American students had to attend schools in surrounding counties, leave the state to attend integrated schools elsewhere, or miss out on education altogether. Many white students attended the local private schools that opened in order to avoid desegregation. Five years later, the Supreme Court ordered the reopening of Prince Edward County public schools in Griffin v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County. In September 1964, about 1500 students, most of them black, returned to public school in Prince Edward County.
September 8th, 1959
Black Man Vows to Sue Mississippi Southern College if Denied Admission Due to Race
In 1955, Clyde Kennard, a black U.S. Army veteran and Mississippi native, attempted to enroll in Mississippi Southern College, an all-white public university in the city of Hattiesburg. Mr. Kennard's credentials met the criteria for admission, but his application was denied because he was unable to provide references from five alumni in his home county.
In December 1958, in a letter to a local newspaper, Mr. Kennard announced his intent to re-apply to the university. In response, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission – a state agency formed to protect segregation – hired investigators to research Mr. Kennard's background and uncover details that could be used to discredit him; these attempts were unsuccessful. Soon after, Mr. Kennard withdrew his application after the governor of Mississippi personally requested that he do so.
On September 8, 1959, Mr. Kennard once again tried to apply for admission to Mississippi Southern College. In a letter written to the college's administration, he declared that, if again rejected, he would sue the University for denying him admission based on his race. After he unsuccessfully tried to register for courses on September 15, 1959, Mr. Kennard was charged with illegal possession of alcohol.
Despite this legal retaliation, Mr. Kennard continued his attempts to register at Mississippi Southern. In September of 1960, he was arrested and charged with assisting in stealing $25 worth of chicken feed from a local store. Although there was little evidence against him, an all-white jury convicted him of being an accessory to burglary, and he was sentenced to seven years in state prison. In July of 1963, while still incarcerated, Mr. Kennard died of colon cancer that had gone undiagnosed and untreated in prison; he was 36 years old.