Twenty years before the start of the Civil War and another one hundred years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Frederick Douglass and his friend James Buffum refused to leave a segregated car in 1841. Their refusal inspired similar actions that, temporarily, granted equal rights for Black citizens in public accommodations. The Transportation Protests timeline offers students a range of other examples of the bravery of individuals and groups that challenged segregation in public transportation, including women and girls such as Ida B. Wells, Maggie Lena Walker, Pauli Murray, and Claudette Colvin.
While segregation did not occur uniformly across the United States, the denial of equal access to public accommodations had everything to do with race, ethnicity, and national origin. Public accommodations are those spaces and resources that are intended for all members of society, particularly for those that are supported by taxpayers. The experiences of Latino and Hispanic communities in California, New Mexico, and other parts of the Southwest, the formation of Indian reservations, redlining and Jim Crow all demonstrate the deliberate segregation of communities of color in American life. In many cases, Native, Latinx, and Asian communities were classified with Blacks and excluded from so-called “white” facilities, based purely on false beliefs about race and the presumed inferiority and undesirability of people who were not “white.”
But, throughout U.S. history, communities of color fought for their right to equal access and for human dignity and equity. Desegregation in public schools, transportation, and other accommodations was more than court cases and legal victories. Desegregation was a long struggle led by students, parents, and every day citizens who experienced or saw the injustice of American segregation. Faced by indignities and violence, students and parents maintained the courage to fight for the rights of first class citizenship. They were not interested in integration, or the desire to mingle socially or otherwise with whites, but to break and reconstruct institutions that forced people of color into positions of poverty, illiteracy, and political powerlessness.
Before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Lemon Grove case in 1930 and 1947 Mendez v. Westminster School District case challenged segregation in education. The Mendez case was brought by Mexican-American farmers Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who were unwilling to accept second-class citizenship for themselves and their children. Recent scholarship on the Indian civil rights movement, such as Denise E. Bates’ book, The Other Movement, has brought to light the political mobilization of Native American communities and the role of intertribal state commissions in the American South after World War II.
While most students hear about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., they often don’t learn about Pauli Murray, Diane Nash, and Claudette Colvin, and other young students that challenged Jim Crow segregation. By the 1940s, Black students and young people were at the forefront of early desegregation efforts. Both Rebecca de Schweinitz’s book, If Youth Could Change the World, and Thomas Bynum’s book, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom show how students during and after World War II committed themselves to challenging segregation in transportation, education, and other public spaces. Even before the 20th century, as David Adams shows in his book Education for Extinction, Native American students pushed back against government schools through acts of resistance. Despite taunts and violence, Native American students in Pennsylvania to elementary students in Little Rock to college students across the United States showed courage and bravery to desegregate education and public places and demand equal education.
In this section, we provide resources to explore the long history of segregation in the U.S., how communities fought for their right to equal accommodations, and raise questions about the persistence of segregation in the United States today. The success of early desegregation was limited by court decisions in the 1970s and 1980s. James Patterson in his book Brown V. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Trouble Legacy shows how later court decisions limited the impact of the initial Brown decision.
As Charles J. Ogletree has noted in All Deliberate Speed, segregation “is still with us” and the goal of the Brown decision – school desegregation – continues to elude us. The readings and teaching activities place students in the shoes of those that showed the bravery to stand up for their rights and enable students to take an active role on the problem of segregation today.