[History] Racial Inequality in 1950s USA

Revision notes looking at the extent of racial inequality that existed in the USA in the 1950s.

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  • Created by: Abigail
  • Created on: 08-06-12 11:56

Segregation in Southern States

The US Constitution guaranteed that all people were treated equally and that all citizens of the USA enjoyed the same civil rights, however, systematic discrimination existed in southern states.

  • 'Jim Crow' laws made blacks second class citizens.
  • Public facilities such as parks, buses and schools were segregated.
  • Black people were not protected by the law. White juries, police and judges discriminated against them.
  • Black people were excluded from voting as laws were set up in states that made it impossible for blacks to register.
  • Black people earned half, or less, of a wage than a white person doing the same job as them.
  • Black people were terrorised and suffered violence from racist groups.
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The Effects of the Second World War

The Second World War can be seen as the starting point for black activism and the fight for civil rights.

  • President Truman believed in legal equality for black people being "natural born Americans" and he was aware of the need for greater equality in the USA.
  • Over 1 million black people served in the Armed Forces, though to begin with, they could only do manual work.
  • Those who worked in the war industries found their wages increased massively.
  • However, black nurses could only tend to black soldiers.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, colour, religion or national origin .” President Truman, July 1948

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Attitudes in Southern States

Many white people, particularly in the southern states, viewed black civil rights as a threat to their way of life.

“I say, segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, 1963.

The Ku Klux Klan:

  • A secretive, racist organisation that terrorised blacks through bombings, lynchings and intimidation.
  • Klan members worked with Mayors and Governors of southern states to resist change.
  • Birmingham, Alabama was nicknamed 'bombingham' as the KKK bombed a church there, murdering four young black girls.
  • Civil rights activists were murdered by the Klan.
  • Many groups of the KKK operated without punishment from the law, and allegedly with the police themselves, to drive blacks out of neighbourhoods.
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The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956

In Montgomery, Alabama the buses were segregated. If a black person was sat on a bus and a white person came on, the black person would have to give them their seat if there were no other spaces. Blacks also were made to sit at the back of buses.

  • Rosa Parks was a black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man.
  • Rosa was a member of the NAACP. (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People)
  • She was arrested for her action.
  • After her arrest, Martin Luther King organised a bus boycott which lasted for 381 days and 90% of black people in the area took part. 
  • The bus company's revenues took huge cuts, so the federal court ordered the buses in Montgomery to be desegregated to end the boycott.
  • The boycott showed that non-violent direct action could work and by refusing to cooperate with the system, it could be changed.
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Brown versus Topeka Board of Education, 1954

Schools in the southern states were segregated by law. They were deemed to be "separate but equal", in the belief that there was no discrimination if black and whites had the same facilities and equipment. However, schools for blacks were not as well funded.

  • Protests against school segregation by black pupils were taken up by the NAACP. 
  • The NAACP argued that black children had been put at a disadvantage by the school system and that they were not being prepared to live in a mixed race society.
  • The Supreme Court decided that segregated education could not be considered to be 'equal'.
  • The Supreme Court ordered that segregation in schools was to be phased out over time.

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Supreme Court ruling in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, May 1954.

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Little Rock High School, 1957

The desegregation of schools was met by bitter hostility in some states.

  • Nine black students sued for the right to attend Little Rock High School in Arkansas.
  • The Governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent the nine students entering the school, making a stand against integration and the decision of the Supreme Court.
  • President Eisenhower intervened and ordered the National Guard back to barracks and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students. 
  • Only one black student graduated and at the end of the year the school system closed rather than continue to integrate.
  • Central High was not integrated until 1960 and the other of Little Rock's schools were not fully integrated until 1972.
  • TV footage helped to influence white opinion in favour of change.
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Living Standards for Black People

Discrimination and the 'Jim Crow' laws made it difficult for black people to find work. In the north and west of the USA black people were treated less harshly than in southern states.

  • 50% of black Americans lived in poverty.
  • Unemployment amongst blacks was double that of whites.
  • 'The Great Migration' saw thousands upon thousands of black people move north to find work. 
  • Blacks aspired to move out of ghettos and into suburbs and leave agricultural jobs for factory jobs.
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