Key Moments in the Fight for Civil Rights

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1957-1962 – Desegregating Southern Schools

Southern whites resist the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which states that separate school facilities are inherently unequal and orders school integration. Several Southern governors lead the way in preventing integration, claiming the Federal government is intervening in state matters and pledging to maintain the South’s traditions and heritage. The NAACP’s legal team files suit to open the doors of public educational institutions to African Americans.

Mob rule and violence are used to keep Autherine Lucy from enrolling in the University of Alabama in early 1956, although a court decision backs her efforts. In Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine — a group of African-American high school students — pass through angry crowds to integrate Central High School in fall 1957. They are protected by paratroopers dispatched by President Dwight Eisenhower, and advised by state NAACP officials including Daisy Bates. In Virginia, the governor chooses to close schools rather than integrate. In New Orleans in 1960, white residents riot over four black girls entering a desegregated first-grade classroom. And in Mississippi, in 1963, James Meredith is barred from registering at the University of Mississippi by Governor Ross Barnett. As segregationists gather on campus, armed with guns and homemade explosives, the governor and President John Kennedy engage in fruitless negotiations. Kennedy has to decide whether he will take the political risk to actively support civil rights, even as tensions mount. When he sends Federal marshals to the campus, the mob erupts in violence, killing two people and wounding many others before the U.S. Army is sent to restore order. Meredith will enroll and ultimately graduate from the university.

Much of this text is excerpted, with permission, from the website for the American Experience series Eyes on the Prize. Read more about these events and others on that site.

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