How was Washington State during segregation

Background current

On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and hence prohibited from now on. But it took a long time to implement the ban - and black children in the United States are still disadvantaged.

An African American student in a classroom in Hoxie, Arkansas, a year after school segregation was declared unconstitutional. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Preliminary remark: The word "race" is used in this text. It is a direct translation of the English "race", which has a different connotation than the historically extremely loaded German term. The division of people into different "races" has no scientific basis. However, the term is too present in the USA to be omitted in a text on this topic.

In the 1950s, nine-year-old Linda Brown went to school in the US state of Kansas. It was a long way to school: not because there was no elementary school in her neighborhood in Topeka, but because the girl was black and only white children were taught at the nearest school. Her father, Oliver Brown, refused to accept that. Supported by the civil rights organization National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and together with parents from five different school districts, he sued the responsible education committee. At the end of the process there was a ruling by the Supreme Court, which is considered to be the first important step in the fight for political and social equality of the black population in the USA: In the case of "Brown vs. Board of Education", racial segregation in public schools became unconstitutional explained.

The principle of segregation has existed since 1896

Although slavery had been abolished in the United States since the end of the American Civil War in 1865 (13th Amendment) and civil rights had been defined for all people (14th Amendment), the systematic disadvantage of the black population through racist laws and institutions continued.

In 1896, for example, the Supreme Court had declared racial segregation to be permissible: According to the principle of “separate but equal”, black and white could be legally obliged to attend different schools - as long as that the majority of the judges considered the equality requirement of the constitution to be fulfilled.

In numerous US states, on this basis, the separation of black and white Americans in all areas of public life was justified and required by law: In educational institutions, in the army, on trains, buses, hospitals, public toilets, even in privately operated hotels or doctor's offices.

The signal of departure for the civil rights movement

After the end of World War II, opposition to the legislation arose, especially in schools and universities outside the southern states. In 1948, President Harry Truman first abolished racial segregation within the armed forces by decree. However, it was not until the verdict in the Brown vs. Board of Education case on May 17, 1954 that the Supreme Court overturned its previous jurisdiction The constitutional principle of equality violates.

Jack Greenberg, one of the leading NAACP attorneys on the Brown case, wrote decades later: "Brown was the signal for the sit-ins and marches of the civil rights movement."

In fact, the civil resistance against racial segregation around the pastor and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. gained influence as a result. In December 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama became the heroine of the civil rights movement when she failed to get up on the bus to vacate her seat as prescribed for a white man. This was followed by a twelve month boycott of urban bus transport by the Black Community of Montgomery. In 1956, the Washington Supreme Court declared racial discrimination unconstitutional, including in local transport. In the years that followed, the movement succeeded in ensuring that the legislature passed a new electoral law that should guarantee full political equality for African Americans. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial segregation illegal in all public institutions.

Unequal treatment initially persisted

As great as the historical significance of the judgment of 1954 was, in practice nothing changed initially for many African-American students.

Many southern states delayed the implementation of the judgment or wanted to prevent it completely. The court deliberately did not specify a time frame, but only vaguely demanded implementation "at an appropriate speed" one year after the verdict was pronounced. The responsibility for integration lay with the local school authorities, which themselves often advocated racial segregation. The unwillingness of regional policymakers proved to be a major obstacle to actually overcoming segregation in schools.

Black pupils who tried to enter schools that were previously attended by whites were bullied and sometimes physically attacked. There was particularly violent protest at a school in Little Rock, the capital of the state of Arkansas. In September 1957, violent demonstrators denied access to their school for six girls and three boys of African American origin. The protest was supported by Governor Orval E. Faubus and the Arkansas National Guard, which did not intervene when 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford was attacked. It took weeks for the teenagers to enter the school under the protection of US Army soldiers. In other cases, too, there were racist riots against black students.
The schoolgirl Elizabeth Eckford was harassed by white protesters on her way to school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

As a result of the blockade policy of the southern states, but also because of the continued segregation of residential areas, very few black children attended a school in which they were taught together with whites. It wasn't until the Civil Right Act came into effect in 1964 and a nationwide education program sponsored by President Lyndon B. Johnson did the situation change in schools.

Black students are still disadvantaged to this day

According to studies, the system of discrimination in the education sector is still having an impact today. In early May 2019, 65 years after the Supreme Court lifted racial segregation in schools, a study by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California (UCLA) came to the conclusion that segregation in schools has even increased again since the 1990s. Today, however, the northern states are particularly hard hit: especially in large cities, the financial relationships between the black and white population have continued to develop so unevenly that good schools in the better neighborhoods are essentially reserved for the white upper and middle classes. According to the study, in addition to the Afro-American population, especially the Latin American communities in the western United States are affected by inequality in the education sector.

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