On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that separate public schools for white and black children were unconstitutional.
The Warren Court’s decision, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, found that racial segregation was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, overturning the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.
I was in first grade at Dean Highland Elementary School in Waco, Texas. I’m the kid curtsying in the front row.
The court’s ruling didn’t advise any sort of method for actually ending school segregation. In 1955, the Court attempted to address that issue by ruling, in Brown II, that states must desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed.”
I was in second grade at the brand new Hillcrest Elementary School. All the kids in my class were white.
In 1956, under court order, the University of Alabama admitted its first African American student, Autherine Lucy. White students and local residents rioted. Although admitted as a student, Lucy was still barred from dorms and eating halls.
Autherine Lucy with Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall
After the riots, she was suspended, ostensibly for her own protection, then readmitted after the NAACP filed contempt charges against the university. Shortly after her readmission, she was permanently expelled for publicly criticizing the school.
On September 12, four students entered public school in Clay, Kentucky, under the protection of the National Guard. Four days later, they were barred from attending.
The Virginia legislature called for “massive resistance” to integration and pledged to close schools rather than desegregate.
Nothing much happened in Waco, where I was attending my all-white third grade class.
In 1957, nine black students were admitted to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were initially blocked by Governor Orval Faubus, who called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. President Dwight Eisenhower then ordered the entire Arkansas National Guard federalized and sent the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students as they entered the school.
No black students attended Hillcrest that year, when I was in fourth grade.
On June 29, 1958, Bethel Baptist Church in Brimingham, Alabama, was bombed by members of the KKK.
The Supreme Court ruled, in Cooper v. Aaron, that the fear of social unrest or violence does not excuse states from complying with the Court’s desegregation orders.
I had just graduated from my all-white fifth grade class.
In 1959, Officials in Price Edward County, Virginia, closed public schools rather than desegregate them. White students were allowed to attend publicly funded segregated private academies.
25,000 people marched in favor of integration in Washington, D.C.
Waco schools, still completely segregated, stayed open. I graduated from the sixth grade, eager to attend junior high in the fall.
1960 became the year of the sit-in. On February 1, four black students sat at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, a demonstration that went on for six months. Two weeks after the Greensboro sit-in began, the Nashville, Tennessee sit-in started, lasting until May.
34 students from Virginia Union University staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Richmond. Texas. Southern University students held a sit-in in Houston. On March 19, San Antonio, Texas, became the first city to integrate lunch counters.
If there were any black students participating in sit-ins in Waco, I was unaware of them, being busy with seventh grade class work at all-white Lake Air Junior High School.
A federal district court in 1961 ordered the University of Georgia to admit two African American students, who were suspended when a riot broke out. They were later reinstated by court order.
On May 4, 1961, the first group of Freedom Riders, intent on integrating interstate buses, departed from Washington, D.C., in a Greyhound bus. On May 14, the bus was attacked and burned near Anniston, Alabama.
The Freedom Riders were beaten by a mob when they arrived in Birmingham, and then arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. On May 17, they were replaced by students from Nashville. Three days later they in turn were assaulted at the Greyhound Station in Montgomery.
Only dimly aware of the history being made in other parts of the country, I was studying earlier eras in America in my 8th grade history class.
In 1962, thousands rioted after a federal appeals court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit African American student James Meredith.
The Supreme Court ruled that segregated transportation facilities were unconstitutional.
The Department of Defense fully integrated all military reserve units, with the exception of the National Guard.
President Kennedy signed an order banning segregation in federally funded housing.
I graduated from still-segregated Lake Air Junior High, ready to begin my high school career at brand new Richfield High School.
In his inaugural address on January 18, 1963, Governor George Wallace called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Despite Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door,” after President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, two African American students registered at the University of Alabama.
NAACP worker Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi.
President Kennedy ordered the integration of public schools in Birmingham, Alabama.
Four young girls were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed.
I finished my sophomore year in high school, still never having attended class with a Negro.
On January 23, 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment, abolishing the poll tax, was ratified, eliminating a barrier that prevented untold numbers of African Americans from voting.
Civil Rights workers participated in Mississippi Freedom Summer, registering African Americans to vote.
On June 21, three of those workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, disappeared after being detained by police in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their bodies were found in an earthen dam on August 4.
On July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment and public accommodations. It also authorized the federal government to file school desegregation cases and prohibited discrimination in schools receiving federal financial assistance.
My junior year ended as it began, with Waco schools still completely segregated. The ugly racial violence that was convulsing the Deep South seemed far removed from peaceful Waco.
March 7, 1965. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, peaceful marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King were stopped and attacked by Alabama State troopers and police.
The march from Selma to Montgomery was finally completed on March 25. That night, volunteer Viola Liuzo was murdered by members of the KKK.
On August 6, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting practices designed to prevent minority registration and voting, and providing federal oversight of elections in states and districts with a history of discrimination.
In June of 1965, I graduated from Richfield High School. There were no African Americans in my graduating class of 540.
On September 14, 1965, I began my studies at the University of Denver, for the first time in my life sitting in a classroom with a black student.