Gayle v. Browder (1956) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Civil Rights Lawyer Fred Gray, Image Courtesy of Fred Gray, Encyclopedia of Alabama

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), Michael Klarman argues the direct and indirect effects of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and debates its impact and connection with the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott marked the first major direct-action protest of the post Brown civil rights era and a “decisive turning point” for southern Negroes. While Gayle v. Browder (1956)invalidated bus segregation laws and effectively desegregated Montgomery buses, Klarman downplays the court decisions significance on the modern civil rights movement and highlights the actual boycott as having the lasting impact, noting that the Montgomery bus boycott “demonstrated black agency, resolve, courage, resourcefulness, and leadership” and “enlightened millions of whites about Jim Crow” (372).

The Montgomery bus boycott originally did not call for the desegregation of city buses. In March 1954, President of the Women’s Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson and other members met with Montgomery Mayor William A. Gayle requesting modest changes for fairer treatment of blacks, not integration of the bus transit system. When the changes were not made, Robinson wrote a letter to the mayor in May warning of a potential boycott. On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin became the first person arrested for challenging the segregation laws for buses. Colvin as well as Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia S. Browder and Susie McDonald were all arrested that year for violating segregation bus laws. All four women would serve as the plaintiffs in Gayle v. Browder (1956). It was the arrest of Rosa Parks for disorderly conduct on December 1, 1955 that set the Montgomery bus boycott in motion, mobilizing the public to finally take action. On December 5, Fred Gray defended Parks in her trial while Robinson and other black leaders called for a one day boycott of the Montgomery buses. With over 90 percent of blacks staying off the buses, local leaders pressed for further action and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. The MIA submitted a resolution asking for three small actions for fairer treatment: for drivers to display more courtesy toward colored riders, seating be arranged on a first-come first-serve basis, and for colored drivers to be hired for bus routes that were predominately black. None of their demands were  met and the boycott continued.

The city refused to make the concessions and adopted a “get tough” policy, believing that the boycott would not last as blacks were seen as undisciplined and unorganized. Boy-cotters were arrested while King and civil rights activist Edgar Daniel Nixon had their homes bombed. Many of these actions brought negative national publicity to Montgomery furthering the support for the case. With their demands not being met, the MIA decided to challenge the legality of bus segregation. On February 1, 1956, two days after the bombing of King’s house, Gray and Charles D. Langford filed a federal district court petition that became known as Gayle v, Browder. The case, featuring the four women, Browder, Smith, Colvin and McDonald as plaintiffs who had been arrested on city buses, challenged “the constitutionality of the laws requiring segregation on the buses in the city of Montgomery” (Gray, 69). Because the case challenged a state-statute, the case was heard by a three-judge United States District Court panel. On June 5, 1956, Judge Richard T. Rives wrote the 2-1 decision ruling that segregation on Alabama buses was unconstitutional citing Brown as precedent. The decision was appealed by Mayor Gayle and the case reached the Supreme Court where it was upheld unanimously on November 13, 1956. On December 17, 1956, Alabama tried to appeal the Gayle v. Browder decision again but their plea was rejected by the Supreme Court. Three days later it was ordered for Montgomery buses to be integrated which led to the MIA calling off the 381-day boycott.

Many of the actors involved in the boycott and case wrote books about the events as well as their own lives. Fred Gray’s Bus Ride to Justice (Montgomery, 1995) contains his first hand account of the events and is partially available on Google Books. Martin Luther King Jr.’s intimate account of the successful nonviolent protest Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York, 1958) is another great source for readers. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (Tennessee, 1987) is the account and memoir of Jo Ann Robinson. Klarman utilizes Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (North Carolina, 1997) as his main source for the boycott and case.

An invaluable online resource is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. The site features an encyclopedia with various entries on the events, cases, organizations and people involved with the civil rights movement. Each entry contains references, links to relevant entries as well as primary documents related to the entry. Another helpful free online resource is the Encyclopedia of Alabama which contains numerous articles on the events and people involved.

For other references on people involved in the case and boycott, there are numerous sources available in books and online. Claudette Colvin is the subject of Phillip M. Hoose’s new book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (New York, 2009). There is an article in the Montgomery Advertiser which explores the life of Aurelia Browder that is available online. Their site has a feature on the Montgomery bus boycott and offers other materials including video. Judge Richard T. Rives, who wrote the 2-1 decision that ruled segregation unconstitutional in the case, had his obituary printed in the New York Times on October 30, 1982. The other judge who ruled in the majority was Frank Minis Johnson Jr, who is the subject of many books including Jack Bass’ Taming the South: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson and the South’s Fight Over Civil Rights(New York, 1993) which is considered the most complete biography and available at the Dickinson Library. Seybourn Lynne, the dissenter in the case, had his obituary published in the New York Times on September 12, 2000.

Brown II (1955): The Task of Desegregation

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (New York, 2004), Michael J. Klarman states that the Brown II decision made in 1955 gave hope to those who opposed the original verdict of Brown v. Board of Education a year earlier.  Klarman writes that Brown II “was a solid victory for white southerners” and that “the Court did not really intend to foist integration on them any time soon” (318-19).

The Brown Family, Courtesy of PBS

Klarman identifies the changes within the Supreme Court itself as a catalyst for the delay in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education and Brown II as it was almost a year between these two decisions, displaying the inability to find quick way to initiate desegregating procedures.  The case with young Linda Brown from Topeka, Kansas at the forefront brought an end to segregation in schools, but how the institution of that policy would come about was for Brown II to determine.  In Brown II, the justices determined that taking a stance favoring gradual desegregation and a flexible implementation plan.  This was not the positive result that supporters of the Brown v. Board of Education decision almost a year earlier were expecting as it did not institute immediate segregation and gave the supporters of segregation, mainly those school systems in the South, an opportunity to draw out the process of integration.

In many ways, Brown II was just as important if not more important than Brown v. Board of Education as it set into motion the sweeping decision of desegregation determined by Brown v. Board of Education and how it would be carried out in areas that still had segregated school systems.  While the case was certainly a blow to the movement towards equal rights and instant desegregation of schools, it is highly likely that, according to Klarman, “even an order for immediate integration would have been bitterly resisted” (320).

While there have been numerous amounts of books and articles written encompassing the entire process of the Brown v. Board of Education case, there have been no well-known works detailing solely the Brown II decision.  This is most likely because the Brown II decision is seen as an extension of the Brown v. Board of Education rather than its own separate entity.  However, the Brown II decision plays a major role in the books whose foundation concerns firstly the Brown v. Board of Education decision made in 1954.  Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents by Waldo E. Martin focuses on the primary sources for its source of analysis concerning the cases which contrasts to books like Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy by James T. Patterson which provide more of a narrative-like style when detailing the events of the cases.  Both of these works also provide the necessary background such as information on the Plessy v. Ferguson case as well as examining the context surrounding the decisions and the social environment of the time.  Journal articles such as “The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on Postsecondary Participation of African Americans” by William B. Harvey, Adia M. Harvey, and Mark King focus more on specifics as well as the lasting effects of the Brown v. Board of Education and the Brown II cases and their ability to permeate aspects of society in the modern day.

Chief Justice Earl Warren became one of the most well-known justices in American history and his era of transforming American law, especially in regards to segregation.  Several standard biographies of Warren exist, with the most well-known being Earl Warren: Justice for All by Christine Compston and Earl Warren: A Public Life by G. Edward White, which cover his entire lifetime while both having major focuses on his role in Brown v. Board of Education and as head of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Chief Justice Earl Warren, Courtesy of the National Constitution Center

The other judges in the case who sought unanimity in their decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Brown II were Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, John M. Harlan, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Sherman Minton.  All of these justices have had at least one biography written about their achievements not only concerning their times as Supreme Court justices but also in other aspects of their political careers.  Two of the more well-known works are Hugo Black by Roger K. Newman and Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark: A Lifetime of Service by Mimi Clark Gronlund.

Brown II (1955)

Following the crucial Brown v. Board of Education Brown v. Board of Education Decisionunanimous decision of 1954 which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and declared that racial segregation in public schools violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, Northern border state cities attempted to desegregate their respective school systems without too much social resistance. However, according to Klarman, “even in those border-state cities where desgregation came quickly, the number of blacks attending racially mixed schools often remained small because of residential segregation.” (348) When it came to non-bordering Southern states, desegregation was relatively nonexistent and would not become an issue until the 1960s “as burgeoning direct-action protest made blacks more aggressive in demanding school desegregation…and federal judges grew less tolerant of delay.” (349)

One year after the original Brown v. Board of Education decision, Southern states requested exemption from the desegregation task which was brought to the Supreme Court as Brown II. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the decision for this case as well. Associate Justices Stanley Reed, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William Douglas, Harold Burton, Tom Clark, and Sherman Minton presided over this case as well. Although the court ultimately upheld that “racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional, and all provisions of federal, state or local law requiring or permitting such discrimination must yield to this principle”, it also provided Southern states with a loophole. The Brown II decision not only mandated that school boards would hold the power to desegregate, but that they should carry out the desegregation process with “all deliberate speed”, an extremely ambiguous term that allowed Southern states to stall racial equality. Without an official court order, states could essentially take as little or as long a time as they deemed necessary to desgregate their school system.

Considering the gravity of these cases, there are many secondary sources that help to shed light on the then-controversial issue of racial equality. For example,  Brian Daugherity’s  With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education, aims to provide readers with an assessment of the struggles that came with implementing integration in public schools across the country, specifically in the South. Daugherity’s book lays out a roadmap using numerous firsthand accounts and essays. According to a book review by Christopher Schmidt from The Journal of American History, Brown II demonstrates that “in the face of massive resistance the courts were largely ineffectual and southern moderates were marginalized. [Daugherity] portray African Americans – parents, lawyers, and activists – acting on the local level as the crucial players in the desegregation struggle.” In a review by writer Mark Whitman from The Journal of Southern History believes that “the greatest strength of the volume is that the contributors focus on the unique aspects of each southern state’s struggle with a future those states collectively resisted.”

Another valuable secondary source is Silent Covenants: Brown v Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, written by Derrick Bell, the first tenured African American professor at Harvard University and a veteran civil rights lawyer. Bell argues that the Brown case acts more as a symbol of changing times and less as a legal precedent. In a review by Genna Rae McNeil from The Journal of Southern History, she explains that Bell uses his “interest-convergence theory” (which basically states that during the Brown era, racial equality would not be achieved and African-American legal interests would not be satisfied until they happened to converge with white legal interests) to support Michael Klarman’s backlash thesis in From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, “which maintains that the abolition of Jim Crow was inevitable and limits the major significance of Brown to its crystallization of southern resistance to racial change that previously had been scattered.”

There are also many primary resources that help to illuminate the effects that Brown II had in the national scheme of things. For example, following the Brown II decision, 101 congressman from across the United States put together a “Southern Manifesto“, written in 1956, as a counter to the idea of public integration in general. Written originally by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and finalized by Georgia Senator Richard Russell, the document goes into great detail regarding “the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power.” This document helps us to understand the Brown v Board of Education cases from a Southern segregationist perspective.

Another primary resource that helps us to further understand the effect that the Brown II decision had on African Americans of the time is an autobiography written by Melba Beals, one of the members of the infamous “Little Rock Nine” group. Little Rock Nine represents nine African American students from Little Rock, AK who were prohibited from attending their local high school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus despite the Supreme Court legislation banning segregation in schools. Following an intervention by former-President Eisenhower, those students were allowed to attend their respective publuic school.  Many years later, Melba Beals wrote a book entitled Warriors Dont Cry which details the Little Rock Nine controversy and the effects that it had on her, her family, and all those involved. This book provides a valuable firsthand insight into some of the more negative effects that Brown II had on the public.

Sweatt v. Painter (1950)

Klarman introduces Sweatt v. Painter (1950) as one of two cases “instrumental to desegregating higher education in the border states and the peripheral South” (253). The case led to the desegregation of the University of Texas, and set a precedent allowing educational facilities to be integrated.

The case began in Texas in 1946, where a man named
Herman Marion Sweatt
Courtesy of TPR
Heman Marion Sweatt, was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School,
since entrance was restricted to whites. The President of the College, Theophilus Painter, refused to change the University’s policy restricting blacks from entering. When Sweatt asked the state courts to order his admission, the university simply constructed another university so that they could utilize the Separate but Equal Clause of Plessy v Ferguson (1896). The Texas State Supreme Court agreed with this idea, and its decision, found at HouseofRussel.com allowed the state of Texas to create a separate institution. Sweatt appealed the decision, and brought the case to the Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, he argued that the “separate but equal” facility that Texas had created was in fact inferior to the University of Texas, citing its smaller, less prestigious faculty, its restricted course offerings, and a library that offered far fewer books than the main campuses library. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled in favor of Sweatt, agreeing that since the other schools facilities were inferior, the state of Texas had not met its “separate but equal” claim.
There is a great deal of literature and resources available for Sweatt itself, and regarding the circumstances surrounding the case. There is R. Scott Baker’s book Ambiguous legacies: The NAACP’s legal segregation in Charleston, South Carolina, 1935-1975, which provides background information about black higher education in the South. Additionally, The Crisis magazine published an article in 1951 entitled “Undergirding the Democratic Ideal” by Roy Wilkins, which spoke about education for African Americans as a hallmark of a democratic society. An article called “Racial Integration in Education” by Thurgood Marshall and John Clay Smith discusses the history of African Americans trying to receive equal education. There are also contemporary accounts of the case written by the African American newpaper, Houston Informer,(25 Articles) which has accounts of the case from March 5, 1946 to June 24, 1950. The case was also covered by four other contemporary newspapers, the Austin American, (11 Articles) the Daily Texan (1 article), the Dallas Morning News( 7 Articles), and The United States Law Week.
Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote the decision which reversed the opinion of the trial court, which stated that the “privileges, advantages, and opportunities for the study of law substantially equivalent to those offered by the State to white students at the University of Texas”. Vinson compared the two schools and noted the “[t]he University of Texas Law School has 16 full-time and three part-time professors, 850 students, a library of 65,000 volumes, a law review, moot court facilities, scholarship funds, an Order of the Coif affiliation, many distinguished alumni, and much tradition and prestige. The separate law school for Negroes has five full-time professors, 23 students, a library of 16,500 volumes, a practice court, a legal aid association and one alumnus admitted to the Texas Bar; but it excludes from its student body members of racial groups which number 85% of the population of the State and which include most of the lawyers, witnesses, jurors, judges, and other officials with whom petitioner would deal as a member of the Texas Bar.” He was joined in his opinion by Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Franfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Sherman Minton.
There is not a great deal of literature available for Justice Vinson. In 1969, Herman Pritchett wrote Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court. (The University of Chicago Press, 1969), which I could not find. There is also Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1941-1953 by Melvin I. Urofsky, which discusses his court cases while in the Supreme Court.
The life of Herman Sweatt is not altogether well recorded. Gary M. Lavergne’s book Before Brown details Sweatt’s attempts to get admitted to Law School, as well as other African American attempts to gain equality in education before Brown. Otherwise, he is simply part of books detailing the Civil Rights movement, such as Dwonna Naomi Goldstone‘s book about racial equality Integrating the 40 Acres, but not a key part of the book.
Likewise, Theophilius Painter is not mentioned a great deal in the pages of history. Actually, he is more remembered for his contributions to science than to medicine. James Schwartz’s In Pursuit of the gene: from Darwin to DNA speaks about Painter’s contributions to genetic science in his lifetime. The only other resources on him are all related to the trial, and there is no definitive biography on him. The best I was able to find was the University of Texas’s Biographical Note, which briefly discusses his life before providing the location to documents about his life.

Smith v. Allwright

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), Michael Klarman underlines the main reasons why the court’s decision in Smith v. Allwright (1944) changed so drastically from Grovey v. Townsend, nine years prior. “This shift, within the short span of nine years, from a unanimous decision sustaining white primaries to a near-unanimous ruling invalidating them, is unprecedented in U.S. constitutional history.” (Klarman, 200)

Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Smith v. Allwright confronted the issue of all white primaries in the state of Texas. Lonnie Smith was an educated black man who had lived in Texas his entire life and had always voted for the Democratic candidate. However, in Texas and other southern states, blacks were banned from voting in the Democratic primary elections. The primary election was extremely important in Texas since it was a one-party state, and therefore, the results would determine the winner of the general election. Smith and the NAACP brought the issue to the Supreme Court “holding that the Texas Democratic Party’s racial restriction on voting in its primaries was ‘in violation of the 15th amendment.’” (Valelly, 158) The court ruled 8-1 in favor of Smith. This victory was crucial as it “laid the groundwork for the [NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)] 1954 victory over segregated education in Brown v. Board of Education.” (Zelden, 3)

Klarman examines why the Supreme Court had such a dramatic shift in their opinions in the nine years between Grovey and Smith. In chapter four, Klarman looks at the context of the United States during the 1940s and reflects why it was so significant in the outcome of Smith. The United States had entered in World War II and blacks were fighting in a segregated army against fascism. Many people saw the “hypocrisy of fighting abroad for what it is not willing to accept at home” (Klarman, 175) and blacks “complained of the ‘mock democracy’ for which they were being asked to risk their lives.” (Klarman, 175) Because of this, Klarman states, “the justices cannot have missed the contradiction between a war purportedly being fought for democratic ends and the pervasive disfranchisement of southern blacks.” (Klarman, 200) Klarman also reasoned that one of the reasons for why the court made its decision in Smith was based on popular consensus. It was not only northerners that felt this way, but “even southern whites were far less committed to preserving black disfranchisement than they were to maintaining school segregation.” (Klarman, 200)

Klarman also mentions that the Court had been rearranged almost entirely since Grovey in 1935. Justice Owen Roberts, who had been apart of both courts, was the only one to vote against the invalidating of all white primaries. Chief Justice Stone had also been apart of the Grovey court, although, unlike Roberts, he had changed his opinion between those nine years. However, “the near-unanimous result is misleading. [Robert] Jackson and [Hugo] Black initially voted with Roberts…to sustain Texas’s white primary.” (Klarman, 199) Other court members included Stanley Reed, Felix Frankfurter, Frank Murphy, William Douglas and Wiley Rutledge.

There are several books in the Dickinson Library concerning the issue of black disfranchisement and the Smith v. Allwright case. Two of the more recent books on this subject include Charles Zelden’s The Battle for the Black Ballot: Smith v. Allwright and the Deafeat of the Texas All-White Primary (University Press of Kansas, 2004) and Richard Valelly’s The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (University of Chicago Press, 2004). Zelden goes into discussing Thurgood Marshall’s and the NAACP’s role in the Smith case and how it marked a significant moment in the civil rights movement. “The victory in Smith was the first in a series of legal victories in the late 1940s and early 1950s….all of which laid the groundwork for the LDF’s 1954 victory over segregated education in Brown v. Board of Education.” (Zelden, 3) In Valelly’s book, he offers a comparison of the two reconstruction movements, the first after the Civil War, and the second being the Civil Rights Movement, and the changing of race relations in the United States. Valelly believes that Smith v. Allwright marks the beginning of the second reconstruction.

Kevin McMahon offers an interesting view in his book, Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown (University of Chicago Press, 2004), which can be found in google books. McMahon believes that “the Roosevelt administration established a common bond with the goals of legal reform groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU and at times fought hand in hand with them to legally sabotage the constitutionally protected system of southern white supremacy.” (McMahon, 7) McMahon uses Smith as a key example for his argument.

Missouri Ex Rel. Gaines v. Canada

Lloyd L. Gaines, photo courtesy of the University of Missouri Archives

Michael J. Klarman introduces the case Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) in his book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford 2004). Klarman addresses this particular case in his section about the Interwar Period. He used this case for one of the examples involving segregation in in-state higher education. Klarman continues to discuss the case in his chapter on the World War II Era. Interracial higher education continued to be an issue for quite some time in America, especially in the south. The issue came to a climax sixteen years later with the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Gaines v. Canada is one of the first cases on the topic of educational segregation to make it to the Supreme Court.

Segregation in education was a hot topic of interest during this period. The United States seemed split in their opinion about it. This particular case begins with the University of Missouri refusing to admit Lloyd L. Gaines, a resident of Missouri, to its Law school. The school refusal accounted for the fact that Missouri had a “separate education for the races” in its constitution at the time. Missouri, in an attempt to brush the case under the rug, agreed to pay Gaines’ tuition at either of their neighboring law schools in Iowa, Kansas or Nebraska, as there was no law school specifically designed for blacks in Missouri at the time. Gaines could have gone to the other schools, but he fought hard to go the law school at Missouri. After having received this dismissal, Gaines sought the assistance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  With the NAACP, Gaines pursued legal action against the University of Missouri on account of their admissions guidelines. The NAACP and Gaines took the case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1938. Gaines argued that the admissions refusal was a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

When taken to the Washington, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gaines. Chief Justice Huges wrote in his opinion that the Court had ruled that if that state provided legal education to one of the races, it must provide it to all races. They finally ruled, in Justice James McReynold’s Separate Opinion that the University of Missouri could definitely not still refuse Gaines’ admission to the law school.

University Of Missouri 1938, Image courtesy of Larry Grothaus' article

The quizzical piece of this tale remains that once Gaines was victorious in his pursuit of law school education at the University of Missouri, he completely disappeared three months later at the age of 28. He was last seen in Chicago in March of 1938, but was never seen or heard from again.

Klarman writes that the main issue of Gaines was that it “invalidated out-of-state tuition grants for blacks to pursue graduate and professional education.” He also writes that it had a “greater affect on legislatures than most civil rights victories thus far considered.” Klarman finds that many states go directly against what the Court had ruled unconstitutional (Klarman 160). The higher education schools had to either integrate or provide “equal but separate facilities.” In particular, Missouri’s response to the case was that they built a law school for blacks, though it was far inferior to that of the regular law school (Klarman 161). One key point that Klarman remarks on is that it wasn’t until “after World War II that most southern states begin providing (segregated) higher education opportunities for blacks within their boarders.” Gaines clearly helped this situation along, but not in the radical way one might think. Some critics may believe that the Gaines case paved the way for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1954. Though it may have begun to break down the barriers of “separate but equal.” Though it marks the first time the issue had been taken to higher court, not many significant changes followed after its decision.

Later in his narrative, in the section on the WWII Era, Klarman relates that even after ten years, not one southern state had admitted blacks to a Ph.D. program (Klarman 204).

Many critics and authors have defined the Gaines case as the predecessor of Brown v. Board of Education. For example, Daniel T. Kelleher writes in his article “The Case of Lloyd Lioonel Gaines: The Demise of the Separate but Equal Doctrine,” that the case was the beginning of the end for the “separate but equal” policy in the United States. He is convinced that it paved the way for a new doctrine in the country. He writes that the decision “provided the legal basis for the desegregation of professional and graduate facilities in several boarder and southwestern states after World War II” (Kelleher 271).

Another author is Larry Grothaus, who wrote the article ““The Inevitable Mr. Gaines”: The Long Struggle to Desegregate the University of Missouri 1936-1950.” In his article, he provides an extensive foundation for the background information of the Gaines case. He also asserts that the case was the strong predecessor to the Brown case sixteen years later. Most critics agree this to be the situation.

From a fairly extensive amount of research, it is found that Klarman is one of the few critics of this case that has a seemingly negative attitude towards its outcome. Though the court ruled in favor of Gaines, his disappearance made it difficult for the NAACP to continue on with their pursuit of destroying the “separate but equal” doctrine. Klarman rightfully points out that many states went directly against the courts ruling. Though it has been called, many times, the predecessor of Brown v. Board of Education, the case of Gaines v. Canada is just the first step in a long and dreary process for higher education desegregation. Not much legislation seems to follow this immediate case. However, its success is greatly remembered in Supreme Court history.

Sweatt v. Painter (1950)

 In Michael J. Klarman’s book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), he examines the Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and its importance to the civil rights movement. Klarman studies not only the case itself, but also the social and political context in which the case was decided and how the decision was subsequently received. Sweatt v. Painter essentially invalidated Plessy v. Ferguson‘s 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine, and while it “did not necessarily doom other sorts of segregation,” it did lay the groundwork for the monumental 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (211).  

Heman Sweatt standing in line at the University of TexasIn 1946, Heman Sweatt, a black man, applied to the School of Law at the University of Texas, which, like all other Texas law schools at the time, refused to admit blacks. When his application was rejected, Sweatt sued the school, whose president was named Theophilus Painter. The Texas trial court delayed the ruling for 6 months to give the state time to build a separate law school just for blacks. The court claimed that “separate but equal” facilities had been set up and when Sweatt appealed to the Texas Supreme Court he was again denied. When the NAACP and Sweatt brought the case to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson delivered an opinion on behalf of the unanimous Court that invalidated Texas’ claims and ordered Sweatt’s admittance. While many officials argued that the separate school’s facilities were in no way inferior to the white university’s, “the Court’s focus on intangibles in Sweatt… was unprecedented” (208). The justices noted that the school was inferior in the number of books and faculty, and specifically that intangibles like a lack of experience or prestige made the black school unequal in the study of law. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Court ruled that Sweatt’s segregation “denied him the opportunity to interact with whites,” which meant that “equal legal education was impossible with ‘such a substantial and significant segment of society excluded” (207). Essentially, the segregation would prevent the interaction and competition that were a crucial component of a law student’s education, and that separate was thus not equal. The Court ruled that for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the University of Texas must immediately admit Sweatt.   

The unanimous decision by the Vinson court was anything but easy, and many justices were troubled by the decision (208). There was a question of existing precedent and Klarman even says that the decision revoked, “at least in the contect of higher education, a separate-but-equal doctrine that had been almost universally endorsed by lower courts…for three-quarters of a century” (289). To understand the decision, it is best to try to understand the individuals involved and the “social and political change” of the times (209). A very recent book by Gary M. Lavergne titled Before Brown: Heman Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice (2010) examines Heman Sweatt himself, the Sweatt case, and the ramifications it had for the 1954 Brown decision. Mark Whitman, a professor of history at Towson State University, has edited several volumes on the Brown era that pertain to the Sweatt case, the most recent of which is Brown v. Board of Education: a Documentary History (2004). M. Christopher Brown II published an article in the Journal of Negro Education on the importance of cases like Sweatt prior to the Brown ruling, titled “Collegiate Desegregation as Progenitor and Progeny of Brown v. Board of Education” (Vol. 73, Summer 2004). There are also several interesting and relevant articles available on JSTOR that were published just years after the Sweatt ruling: John P. Roche’s “The Future of ‘Separate but Equal’” (Phylon, no. 13, 1951) and W. Astor Kirk and John Q. Taylor King’s “Desegregation of Higher Education in Texas” (Journal of Negro Education, vol. 27, 1958). For a good analysis of the Brown era and a collection of primary sources, see Waldo E. Martin’s Brown v. Board of Education: a Brief History with Documents (1998).   

There are few books that pertain directly to Sweatt v. Painter, other than the aforementioned Lavergne book. Information on the Vinson court that decided the case can be found in several helpful sources. C. Herman Pritchett’s Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court (2003) comes highly recommended by American National Biography, and Michal R. Belknap presents a concise and clear study of the court in his book: The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (2004). A study of several of the justices who served on the Vinson court can be found in New Deal Justice: the Constitutional Jurisprudence of Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert H. Jackson (1996) by Jeffrey D. Hockett. For information on Vinson himself, see James E. St. Clair and Linda C. Gugin’s comprehensive Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: a Political Biography (2002). There has been less published recently about the other justices (Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Sherman Minton) but there are several works that can be found on Google Books that examine their jurisprudence as well as their personal lives. Heman Sweatt’s NAACP-appointed lawyer was future Chief Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who has had much written about him. Two of the best books for examining his legal career and thoughts as they pertain to Sweatt v. Painter are Mark V. Tushnet’s Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961 (1996) and Brenda Haugen’s Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice (2007).

McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950)

George McLaurin in class, Courtesy of The Library of Congress

The court case McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education (1950) due to its impact on segregation within an institution of higher education, represented the stepping stone to Plessy’s inevitable overruling. It not only paved the way for the end of what Michael J. Klarman calls the “Plessy Era” but preceded  the famous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) court cases.

On January 1948, the University of Oklahoma rejected the application of George McLaurin, a retired professor seeking a PhD in School Administration. The reason for his rejection focused solely on race and as a result McLaurin filed suit, demanding admission into the university due to lack of PhD programs for blacks in the state of Oklahoma. The Federal District Court ordered the University of Oklahoma to immediately admit McLaurin into the program on October 13, 1948 when classes would begin. Nonetheless, McLaurin faced constant segregation within the institution, such as the classroom, cafeteria, library and restroom areas. He quickly filed suit in 1950, arguing that his treatment had “handicapped him his pursuit of effective graduate instruction.” The court opinion, delivered by Judge Vinson resulted in 9-0, a unanimous consent for the petitioner. The significance of this court decision demonstrates the intolerance for segregation in higher education, and as Klarman notes in, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004) that Judge Clark observed “‘the forces of progress in the South’ were already eroding segregation in higher education” (210).

The exhibition “With an Even Hand” from the Library of Congress, gives helpful resources concerning the trajectory of segregation in American history. An illustrative time-line highlights the importance of cases such as Sipuel v. Board of Regents (1948), Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950), all court cases that crumbled Plessy’s social context of  separate but unequal in higher institutions and enforced the idea “that segregated legal education could no longer be defended on the basis of black inferiority.” (209). Recent scholarship on the subject matter by law professors Robert J. Cottrol, et. al. in Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 2003), although focuses on Brown, the authors trace McLaurin as well as other cases on the gradual end of segregation in education (available in Dickinson Library). While updating newly found information from other blog posts the book by Waldon E. Martin Jr., Brown v. Board of Education: a brief history with documents (New York, 1998). His book give an account of of black individuals opinions over cases such as McLaurin and education from the Chicago Defender, a black activist newspaper. The Joural of Negro Education and Journal of Blacks in Higher Education wrote articles in which it emphasizes the importance of pre-Brown cases and the struggle of segregation on education.

The Masters thesis  by John T. Hubbell, “The Desegregation of the University of Oklahoma, 1946-1950” provides the most notable works focusing on the McLaurin case and  gives detailed description,  first hand accounts and documentation on the court case. Along with Hubbell, Ollie Everett Hatcher’s Ed. D. dissertation also provides detailed history of public education in Oklahoma focusing directly about segregation (available in the Library of University of Oklahoma). Dr. Frank A. Balyeat provides a general overview of racial context of Oklahoma in “Segregation in the Public Schools of Oklahoma Territory”. Additionally, Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice: the history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality (New York, 1975) also intertwines McLaurin’s importance as an evolution of the social struggle of the black community (available in Dickinson Library).

George McLaurin’s case demonstrated that justice Black, Burton, Clark, Douglas, Frankfurter, Jackson, Reed and Vinson, along with McLaurin’s lawyers Robert L. Carter, Amos T. Hall came to identify the reaction of social acceptance, tolerance, and above all else, nonviolent reaction of whites to rulings specifically dealing with higher education. This would contrast drastically to the reactions that followed Brown.

McLaurin v. Oklahoma ( 1950)

In  From Jim Crow to Civil Rights ( Oxford, 2004) Michael Klarman investigates the Supreme Court decision in the civil rights case McLaurin v. Oklahoma. Klarman elaborates on the social, political, and economic factors that shaped the judicial rulings on this case, as well as the many ways in which the final landmark decision to desegregate graduate and upper level schooling helped shape a changing world for the black civil rights movement.

In McLaurin v. Oklahoma  (available through Lexis-Nexis)George McLaurin of an African American citizen of Oklahoma gained admittance to the Graduate School of  University of Oklahoma State as a candidate for a doctorate in education.  He was permitted to use the same classroom, library and cafeteria as white students however, at the time Oklahoma state law functioned under the commonly accepted law of “separate but equal” which instructed that black studentsin institutions of higher education must function on a segregated basis. This therefore only allowed him to eat at a specific table in the cafeteria, study at a predetermined space in the library, and sit in an assigned seat in each classroom.  McLaurin decided to file a suit under the assertion that the conditions under which he was required to receive his education deprived him of his personal right to the equal protection of the laws; and the Fourteenth Amendment eliminates racially biased treatment by the State (638-642). This case brought up several important issues: First, it limited and impaired  McLaurin’s freedoms within the academic community such as his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession(640-641). Second, it violated the Constitution, specifically the Fourteenth Amendment because the “State which prohibited the intellectual commingling of students and the refusal of students to commingle where the State presents no such bar “(641). Finally, McLaurin was admitted to a state-supported graduate school, and therefore should have received the same treatment from the State as students of other races(642).

While Klarman briefly introduces the McLaurin v. Oklahoma he leaves out many of the details of the actual case as well as an important in depth analysis of this effects this decision had on overturning Plessy. John P. Roche’s article, published by the  University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Education, Segregation and the Supreme Court. A Political Review( Vol. 99: May 1951, available through google scholar, Jtor, or ILLIAD) offers a impressive summary of the case as well as a perspective on Judicial review and Judicial self-restraint. The article also examines the McLaurin case as a microcosm for desegregation all over the country.  Another important article cited by over 115 other articles is Robert L. Carter’s article: The Warren Court and Desegregation(Vol 67. : May 1968, available through google scholar, Jstor, or ILLIAD). This article provides an interesting perspective on “the Warren Court” and carefully tracks the trends in legal decision making up through the Brown v. Board of Education (available through Lexis-Nexis)decision. He meticulously deconstructs the McLaurin case and deems it important context for the much larger scale decisions that were to be made about desegregation under Chief Justice Warren.  This article takes Klarman’s analysis of the reasoning behind the justices in the McLaurin decisions a little further( Justices: Hugo Lafayette Black, Harold Burton, Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Sherman Minton, Stanley Forman Reed, Fred Moore Vinson [writing for the Court]) . Klarman attributed the judges decision to social and political changes like the desegregation of major league baseball, the gradual desegregation of the military and the memo asking for the overturn of Plessy by the Court’s first black law clerk, William T. Coleman(209).  He also added that the Truman administration “intervened in these cases to urge that Plessy be overruled , invoking the Cold War imperative for racial change”(210).

A book that sheds important contextual light on the McLaurin v. Oklahoma case is one by Berkley professor Waldo E. Martin, Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History With Documents (NY: Bedford, 1998 segments also available through google books). This book received several book reviews praising it for the important use of primary source documents.  He has several letters within this book to the Chicago Defender Newspaper from black southerners expressing their views on segregated education as well as their desires for better opportunities within the colleges. Many of these letters exemplify the attitudes of the time that finally culminated in McLaurin v. Oklahoma.

While not many sources are available specifically on the case the few mentioned above provide a good start to understanding the complexity of the desegregation issue at this time. Ultimately the verdict in the McLaurin v. Oklahoma case overturned Plessy and therefore increased momentum toward the final decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Finally a good place to search for further primary source documentation is the Oklahoma State University archives. The online archival site offers an accurate case summary as well as photos. The website also indicates that the archives make primary source documentation on the case like newspaper articles, student responses, statistics, and letters available at the actual University or through mail by special request. The contact number for the archives is : (405)325-9685.

Giles v. Harris (1903)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), Michael Klarman highlights the Supreme Court decision in Giles v. Harris (2003) as an extraordinary example where the court admitted to being powerless in stopping disfranchisement methods, even if these devices created by state legislatures were acknowledged to be unconstitutional.  Klarman writes that the Giles opinion is “among the Court’s most candid confessions of limited power” (36).

Beginning with Mississippi in 1890, the former Confederate states began calling conventions to re-write their state constitutions with the goal of retaining white supremacy and disempowering African-Americans through segregation and disfranchisement. Disfranchisement measures had gained steady approval throughout the national government and popular opinion before Alabama proposed and ratified their new constitution in 1901 by racist elite Democrats intent on disfranchising African-Americans. While the constitution was not unequivocally discriminatory toward race, clauses were built in to effectively block blacks from voting. The system was created so that one group (mainly whites) could register once for life through a system that was easy to pass and another group (mainly non-whites) who had to register every time they wished to vote, having to pass a series of literacy, property and employment tests that were administered harshly.   

Jackson W. Giles was president and founder of the Colored Men’s Suffrage Association of Alabama in 1902 when he filed a mandamus petition to the Montgomery County Board of Registers to register himself and five thousand other black county residents as voters. Giles was registered and had voted in Montgomery from 1871-1901 before he was denied to vote by provisions in the new Alabama Constitution. Giles challenged the decision all the way to the Supreme Court claiming that the voter registration provisions in Alabama were unconstitutional according to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and that he be registered to vote. On April 27, 1903, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr ruled for the majority in a divided 6-3 decision that even if Giles was right in that the Alabama provisions violated the United States Constitution, the Court could not interject and order Giles to be enrolled in a voting ploy that could be considered unconstitutional. Holmes also stated that if Alabama had intended to disfranchise blacks, then the Supreme Court was powerless to strike these measures down and therefore directed Giles to file his grievances with the Alabama legislature or Congress. The decision was a definitive message toward African-Americans that the Supreme Court would not nor could they protect their civil rights.

For how important and damaging this case was for African-American voting rights, Giles v. Harris (1903) had received little scholarly attention for much of the twentieth century. In one of the best and most influential articles on the case, New York University School of Law Professor Richard H. Pilades writes that the case “has been airbrushed out of the constitutional canon.” Pilades argues in his article Democracy, Anti-Democracy and the Canon how such an important case, one that “permits the virtual elimination of black citizens from political participation in the South,” has been relatively ignored in most Constitutional Law casebooks. In the March 2009 issue of the Michigan Law Review, editor Samuel Brenner analyzes the case further with regards to Pilades argument in his note “Airbrushed out of the Constitutional Canon”: The Evolving Understanding of Giles V. Harris, 1903-1925. Brenner summarizes the case and provides further analysis on the impact of the decision and how it was interpreted by the media and scholarship over the next twenty years. A new and principle source on Giles and the case is R. Volney Riser’s Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 (Louisiana, 2010), which is partially available on Google Books.

Speaking for the Court, newly appointed  Justice Holmes is the main target of criticism for the decision. There are many biographies and other scholarly works on Holmes, some of the most notable being his 3 volume collection of his writings and selected judicial opinions edited by Sheldon Novick currently available at the Dickinson Library. Other secondary sources of note on the controversial judge are Albert Alschuler’s book Law Without Values: The Life, Work and Legacy of Justice Holmes (Chicago, 2000) and Gary J. Aichele’s Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: Solider, Scholar, Judge(Boston, 1989) which was reviewed in the American Historical Review by Dickinson Political Science professor H. L. Pohlman.

The other five judges who joined Holmes in the majority were Chief Justice Melville Fuller, Edward D. White,Rufus W. Peckham, Joseph McKenna and William R. Day. The three dissenters David J. Brewer joined by Henry B. Brown and John M. Harlan. One of the best biographies on Harlan, more famous for being the sole dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), is Tinsley Yarbrough’s Judicial Enigma: The First Justice Harlan (Oxford 1995). A new study that researches may find interesting is Jeffrey Rosen’s The Supreme Court (New York, 2007), which features a chapter on the contrasting personalities and opinions of Holmes and Harlan. Both books are available at the Dickinson Library.