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"Desegregation" (18827 hits)

“Desegregation” in the United States

Background and Summary

Desegregation is the process of ending racial segregation. It’s most commonly used in reference to the United States. Desegregation was a focus of the American Civil Rights Movement, both before and after the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, particularly desegregation of institutions such as, school systems and the military, It is closely related to the goal of racial integration.

Reactions to the practice of slavery and what should be the proper response to it were varied, also, among its opponents. Some of those who called for abolition were equally adamant that upon being freed, Blacks should be transported back to Africa. Others called for immediate racial integration of society after slavery. While the practice of slavery was outlawed in the U.S. after the Civil War, many of its effects were not.

After the Civil War a series of constitutional amendments were passed: The 13th Amendment prohibited slavery. The 14th Amendment, among other things, granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States. While the 15th guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race or any previous condition of servitude.

Together these amendments allowed Blacks an active role in the political process during the Reconstruction era that they were not afforded prior. On both a per capita and absolute basis, more Blacks were elected to political office during the period from 1865 to 1880 than at any other time in American history. After the disbanding of groups such as, the Freedmens Bureau and other Reconstruction organizations, federal officials decided that voting rights and the enforcement of them were strictly a state matter. This strict interpretation of federalism was overthrown when the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, almost a century later.

Precursors to Integration

Racial desegregation was a set back in 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that the 14th Amendment did not require facilities to be racially integrated as long as they were equal. The “separate but equal doctrine prevailed for well over a half-century until it was reversed in 1954 by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court found that racially separate facilities was inherently unjust.

In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded to foster racial integration and fair treatment toward citizens of color. One of the founders of this group was the intellectual W. E. B. DuBois. Other important groups purposing integration were the Congress of Racial Equality, the Urban League and, later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Racial integration was also encouraged by the leaders of most Jewish groups and of some labor unions. Although many unions vigorously opposed it, as they viewed Black labor as competition with White labor.

Starting with the Revolutionary War in the 17th century, Blacks fought and died alongside Whites in an integrated environment in the North American colonies. They continued to fight together in every American war until the War of 1812. They would not fight in integrated units again until the Korean War. During the Civil War, Blacks enlisted in large numbers in the Union Army (North), particularly in the later stages of the war, but many served in segregated units under the command of White officers. While a handful of Blacks were commissioned as officers in World War I, White officers remained the rule in WWII as well.

One of the greatest advances for racial integration was Executive Order 9981 by President Harry Truman to racially integrate the armed forces shortly after World War II. He used his authority to do this without needing  any enabling legislation, where it would have likely been met with strident opposition, particularly from representatives of the Southern states. In May of 1948, Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-GA) attached an amendment to the Selective Services Bill that was being debated in Congress. The Russell Amendment would have granted draftees and new inductees in the military an opportunity to choose whether or not they wanted to serve in segregated units. His amendment was defeated in committee. Executive Order 9981 was signed on July 26, 1948. In June of 1950, when the Selective Services Law came up for renewal, Russell tried again to attach his segregation amendment and it was defeated again.

Most Black soldiers served in segregated support units in the rear, and the rest served in segregated combat units, most notably the 24th Infantry Regiment. The first months of the Korean War were some of the most disastrous in U.S. military history. Commanders on the ground, faced with staggering losses in White units, began accepting Black replacements, thus, integrating their units. The practice occurred all over the Korean battle lines and proved that integrated combat units could perform adequately under fire. The army high command took notice and formally announced its plans to desegregate on July 26, 1951, exactly three years after Truman had issued Executive Order 9981.

Black naval service stretches back to the beginnings of the nation. Thousands of Black men fought in the Revolutionary War, many in the new Continental Navy. We will never know their names, their heroism or even all of their numbers because of poor record keeping. A great experiment was the USS Mason, a ship with Black crew members commanded by White officers. The Mason’s purpose was to make sailors serve in billets other than stewards and mess men, both strictly menial jobs. The navy had already been pressured to train Black sailors for billets and Eleanor Roosevelt had insisted they be given the jobs that they were trained to do. This experiment in the eyes of those who served was one historic step on the long road in society and the military that awaited Blacks during a time when enforced segregation was ending.

Next Step: Schools

The greatest growth of racial integration occurred as a result of the Civil Rights movement. The best-known spokesperson for racial integration during the Civil Rights era was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. As a result of the movement, the majority of the legal basis for racial segregation was removed and the primary barriers to racial integration remained social and customary ones, which could not be repealed as could laws. As legal barriers came down and members of the races began to interact more freely, the dream of racial integration began to be more of a reality. Still, the United States remains somewhat segregated in housing patterns, although far less so than previously. Also, it remains segregated religiously; nearly all of the leading Protestant denominations still have predominantly White and predominantly Black bodies, although there is a slow spread of racially integrated ones, particularly among the Pentecostal and community church movements.

In 1957, in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, President Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation order by sending troops to Little Rock, Ark., when the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, resisted the decision and wouldn’t allow Black students, they became known as the Little Rock Nine, to enter the previously all-White Little Rock Central High School. The Arkansas National Guard was called in by Faubus to prevent their entering, and thus a precedent was set for the enforcement of court orders relating to racial integration by the executive branch of the Government.

In the 1971 case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that busing of students from one neighborhood to another’s school may be mandatory to achieve racial desegregation. However, such court enforced school desegregation efforts have since been politically and judicially eroded. According to sociologist and retired teacher, Jonathan Kozol, sadly, in the early 21st century, schools have again become as segregated as they were back in the late 1960s pre-Civil Rights Movement.

The impediments to a truly racially-integrated American society now come from many directions. Some are  in the form of overtly racist White groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which although far less influential than in times past, still has many followers of its various factions. Also, opponents of integration are Black nationalists and certain fundamentalist religious groups. Other impediments include backlash against “multiculturalism and against policies such as racial quotas, affirmative action and forced busing and complacency, in the form of viewing desegregation as a fait accompli.

According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the actual desegregation of public schools peaked in 1988; since that time the schools have actually become more segregated. As of 2005, the report says the present proportion of Black students at majority-White schools is "a level lower than in any year since 1968."

Some critics of school desegregation have also argued that court-enforced desegregation efforts were either unnecessary or self-defeating. Large numbers of middle-class and wealthy White people moved to the suburbs in order to escape the integrated school system.

Sociologist David Armor said in court testimony and in his book, Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law, those efforts to change the racial compositions of schools had not contributed substantially to minority school achievement. Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas, in their books: A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana and Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation argued that continuing racial inequality in the larger American society had undermined efforts to force schools to desegregate. They maintained that this continuing inequality had resulted in connections between school achievement and race. Therefore, the achievement levels of an American school were generally associated with its racial and class composition. This meant that even parents without racial prejudice tended to engage in "White flight"  or "middle-class flight" in seeking the best schools for their children. As a result, efforts to impose court-ordered desegregation often led to school districts in which there were too few White students for effective desegregation as White students increasingly left for majority-White, suburban districts or for private schools.

Racial integration, or simply integration, includes desegregation in that it’s the process of ending systematic racial segregation. In addition to desegregation, integration includes goals such as leveling barriers to association, creating equal opportunity regardless of race and the development of a culture that draws on diverse traditions, rather than merely assimilating a racial minority into the majority culture. Desegregation is largely a legal matter, while integration is largely a social one.

From the beginning the military establishment rightly understood that the breakup of the all-Black unit, in a closed society, would necessarily mean more than mere desegregation. The military constantly used the terms integration, equal treatment and opportunity to describe its racial goals.

 Sources:; Morris J. MacGregor, Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington D.C. (1985); Oscar Handlin, "The Goals of Integration", Daedalus 95 (Winter 1966): 270; Keith M. Woods, Disentangling Desegregation Discourse, Poynter Online, February 3, 2004; Henry Organ, The true definition of integration, Palo Alto Weekly, August 13, 1997; Michael W. Lynch “By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race,” Reason, December 1999; Jonathan Kozol, Segregation and Its Calamitous Effects: America's "Apartheid" Schools, VUE (Voices in Urban Education), Number 10, Winter 2006; Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University. “Back to School for Integration: The Catch-22 of Excellence and Diversity Without Race,” Asian Week.

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Thursday, December 20th 2007 at 6:31PM
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