The ruling now universally known as Brown v. Board of Education was hailed in the black press of the day as the most significant event in the freedom struggle since the Emancipation Proclamation. It was essentially a do-over, providing an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to set right what it got wrong in 1896 when the high court gave a constitutional seal of approval to separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws.
The story began long before that Monday afternoon on May 17, 1954, with all nine justices agreeing that the Constitution barred segregated public schools. Its ending is not yet in sight.
Hundreds of blacks, some with thermos bottles filled with coffee, began lining up at 6 a.m. outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 9, 1952, hoping for one of the few seats available to the public to hear the legal arguments of the century. Five cases, which had been separately wending their way through the federal courts before being consolidated that October, were part of a masterfully crafted campaign led by Thurgood Marshall and his NAACP team. But it would take three days of arguments in 1952 (“Throngs Mob High Court For Jim Crow Showdown,” New York Age, Dec. 13, 1952), months of postponements, changes in court personnel and yet more arguments in December 1953 before the court finally issued a decision that the Cleveland Call and Post (May 29, 1954) said “marks the arrival at one of the most important milestones in [the] slow and tortuous journey upward from slavery to freedom.”
Though a new magazine called Jet gave less attention to the December 1952 arguments than it did to a lavish funeral for a casino dog in Atlantic City, in general the black press closely followed developments, even trying to parse other cases for clues to the justices’ approaches to interpreting the Constitution. They were not shy about expressing their exasperation. Under the headline “Prolonging the Suspense,” the Pittsburgh Courier (Apr. 25, 1953) speculated: “Evidently the high court is finding the racial segregation cases a piping hot potato and needs more time to make up its mind. This is understandable because which ever way it rules, the decision will widely influence race relations for a long time to come. Meantime the suspense is just terrible!”
The black press—mainly newspapers but also magazines like Johnson Publishing Co.’s Ebony and Jet—was much more robust, widely read and influential than now and its stock in trade was “contrasting African-American achievement with the folly of Jim Crowism,” as Clint C. Wilson II of Howard University notes in his new book, Whither the Black Press? (Xlibris, 2014). These heralds were as essential as African drums of yore and Twitter today.
News of the ruling certainly spread more swiftly than news of the Emancipation Proclamation, when blacks in 1863 were also jubilant yet wary. The Age reported Harlem’s reaction (May 22, 1954): “Hours after news of the decision claimed the airwaves, residents in this area were still too stunned with joy to release the flood of emotions they experienced at this milestone in the advancement of the American Negro.” Still, some of them pounced upon Marshall as he emerged from a taxi that night and kept him up all night talking about the ruling. In Atlanta, according to the Daily World (May 18, 1954), “it was only a matter of minutes before the news had created a chain reaction and spread like wildfire.”
News also spread among the most recalcitrant segregationists—including the governor of Georgia, my home state—who vowed that blood would flow in the streets before they’d permit white children to attend school with black children. Some proposed eliminating public schools altogether. Blacks realized that the Supreme Court had taken an important step, but hardly a definitive one. It had not dictated how the segregated school system would be dismantled—or how fast. The NAACP wanted a firm deadline for compliance: May 17, 1955.
Resistance mounted. “Most of the states are seeking a way not only to delay the execution of the decision but also means of circumvention. They don’t want to comply this year, next year or ever,” the Chicago Defender noted in a Nov. 27, 1954, editorial declaring “The Sooner the Better.” In parts of the Deep South—e.g., Georgia and South Carolina—teachers who supported the NAACP were threatened with the loss of their jobs. And anyone who dared teach children of both races risked reprisals.
Still, papers like the Atlanta Daily World and the Los Angeles Sentinel sought moderation and played down the resistance, emphasizing on the first anniversary of Brown that about 250,000 blacks and whites attended integrated schools, out of about 12 million in the areas covered by Brown. “School desegregation has been initiated in the District of Columbia and the City of Baltimore, in two towns in Arkansas, 29 counties in West Virginia, 30 communities in Missouri, five towns in Delaware, six cities in Kansas and scattered communities in Arizona and New Mexico.” More telling is what is not mentioned.
In May 1954, Marshall predicted that full integration would “take a period of years—I’d say about five years—and will be done amicably.” But the man lauded by blacks from coast to coast as “Mr. Rights” had a flawed crystal ball. A year later, when the Supreme Court issued its implementation ruling in Brown II—demanding integration “with all deliberate speed” but leaving the details to the lower courts—the Pittsburgh Courier minced no words, expressing the dissatisfaction that the NAACP would not publicly. “Passing the Buck!” its headline screamed in an editorial castigating the high court: “It has passed the buck to the federal district courts because, law or no law, constitution or no constitution, it did not have in May, 1955, the courage of its convictions expressed in May, 1954.”