ACLU History: The Beginning of the End of 'Separate but Equal'

Document Date: September 1, 2010

Throughout the 1950s, ACLU affiliates in New York, Illinois, California and elsewhere fought racial segregation on a variety of fronts – challenging housing discrimination, interracial marriage bans and police abuse, with varied success. Yet the South remained a steadfastly segregated society in which blacks and whites attended separate schools, used separate water fountains and toilets, swore on separate Bibles in court, and sat in different parts of movie theaters in which blacks sat in the upper balconies of public theaters while whites sat on the main floor. One of the most famous cases to emerge from this era was Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ and ordered an end to school segregation.

The NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Supreme Court Justice, was the lead lawyer overseeing a series of cases leading up to the Brown decision. The ACLU consulted with Marshall on his strategies and filed amicus briefs in the major Supreme Court cases, including Brown. Despite the Supreme Court’s order to states to implement desegregation ‘with all deliberate speed,’ the lack of a specific timetable aided many segregationists in delaying and even preventing integration. Physical and verbal assaults and harassment greeted school children who tried to attend all-white schools under district court desegregation orders. A group of Southern senators and congressmen presented a ‘Southern Manifesto,’ asserting their intention to use every legal tactic to resist desegregation. The case was won, but the battles continued as widespread anti-integration violence rocked the nation.


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