Civil Rights and the Federal Government in the African American Experience

August 23, 1963
August 23, 1963

Last month, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.  Led by veteran civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the event sought to provide a public demonstration of support for a comprehensive civil rights bill being proposed by President Kennedy.  Most well-known for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the march aimed to galvanize existing backers of civil rights legislation even as it catalyzed others to support it.  The public momentum it spawned contributed to the Johnson administration’s ability to pass both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).  The former prohibited discrimination in public space and employment decisions, whereas the latter buttressed the Fifteenth Amendment, targeting discriminatory voting practices.  Together, they strengthened the ability of the Federal Government to provide greater protection for the rights of African American citizens while giving those same citizens greater legal standing  to bring cases in Federal Court.

This month marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of the efforts of nine African American students to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  “The Little Rock Nine,” as they were dubbed, had been carefully vetted to attend the previously all-white school in order to satisfy a federal order aimed at enforcing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board (1954) .  As the Little Rock school board complied with the federal government’s demands that it integrate its schools, many hoped that their high achievement and strong character would help smooth that process.  Such hopes proved foolhardy.  In the end, only President Eisenhower’s decision to deploy troops from the 101st Airborne Division made it possible for them to matriculate at Central High school in September 1957.

Three men are driven from Central High School area in Little Rock at bayonet point today by 101st Airborne Division troops.  1957. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Five years later, after a winning protracted legal battle in Federal Appeals Court with the support of the Kennedy administration, James Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Accompanied by Federal Marshals, rioting broke out on campus that left two people dead.  Feeling compelled to act, President Kennedy federalized the Mississippi National Guard and deployed federal soldiers to the region.  They successfully dispersed the rioters by employing tear gas and arresting hundreds.  Afterwards, Meredith successfully enrolled at Ole Miss, earning a bachelor’s degree the next year.

U.S. Marshals Accompany James Meredith to Class (Library of Congress)

A year later, in 1963, a similar scene recurred in neighboring Alabama.  As Governor George Wallace carried through his promise to “stand in the schoolhouse door” in order to prevent integration at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), federal marshals and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sought to help James Hood and Vivian Malone become the first African Americans to matriculate there.  When President Kennedy once again federalized and deployed the national guard, Wallace retreated, allowing the pair to enroll.  Malone would earn a bachelor’s degree from the school while Hood went on to complete his studies elsewhere.

George Wallace Attempts to Block Integration at University of Alabama (By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In each case–and many others–state and local authorities intentionally excluded African Americans from the full rights due citizens of the Unites States of America.  Only federal military deployment persuaded them otherwise.  In their rhetoric, these obfuscating Southern politicians praised the virtues of localism and state’s rights while decrying the interference of the federal governments led by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Contemporary white evangelicals who are suspicious of the federal government and decry its expansiveness–often employing similar language–would do well to recall this recent history.  For in the African American experience, in combination with their own persistent efforts, only the concerted efforts of a muscular federal government guaranteed the most fundamental rights accorded to them as citizens–rights that had been intentionally denied them by state and local authorities.

Resources and Further Reading:

Eagles, Charles W. The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009.

Elliott, Debbie. “Integrating Ole Miss: A Transformative, Deadly Riot.” Morning Edition.  NPR. October 1, 2012.

Goldstein, Richard. “James A. Hood, Student Who Challenged Segregation, Dies at 70.” Obituary. New York Times. Online Edition. January 20, 2013.

“Integrating Ole Miss: A Civil Rights Milestone.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.  Last accessed September 11, 2011.

James Meredith Graduates from Mississippi.” Historic Headlines. New York Times, Online Edition.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965.  New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.





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  • Sven2547

    For in the African American experience, in combination with their own persistent efforts, only the concerted efforts of a muscular federal government guaranteed the most fundamental rights accorded to them as citizens–rights that had been intentionally denied them by state and local authorities.

    I completely agree.

    The purpose of a just government, at any level, is to secure and protect the rights of the governed. If a state or local government is infringing on those rights, it is the federal government’s duty to step in and fix it.

  • John David Laing

    Unfortunately, sometimes the federal government’s definition of “fundamental right” is different from that which is biblical or moral. The very nature of justice implies morality, but the basis for that morality is difficult to ascertain. This can create an enormous amount of confusion when state/local governments disagree with the national government. In this case, the federal government was correct, but it is dangerous to think that the federal government is always correct when it intervenes in order to protect, establish, enforce, define, or determine fundamental rights.

  • Miles Mullin

    Spoken like a true ethics professor!

    Without a doubt, this is correct. Dr. King even alluded to the necessity of thinking this way when he wrote about maintaining an Augustinian understanding of “just and unjust” laws in Letter to Birmingham Jail.

  • John C. Gardner

    One of the tragedies of Christian social conservative thought is that there is almost(for many) an unyielding opposition to any role for the federal government. I am what Thomas Kidd calls a paleo evangelical(actually I am Lutheran) who recognizes that race was one area in which the federal government had to play a key role. Segregation occurred in the South(and in many parts of the north as late as the early 1950s)and was backed by custom and state power. We as Christians needed to stand with our black brothers and sisters in Christ. My wife and I taught at all black universities for part of the 1960s and late 1970s. State governments had formed these universities to prevent integration of all white universities. We must recognize as Christians that all institutions are formed by fallen humans and that segregation was an evil that needed to be overcome. I believe now that we as Christians must unite to help all(regardless of race) who are impoverished.

  • Miles Mullin

    John: you are right. The government has an important role. The question we should be discussion is “what” not “if.”

    Segregation in the North lasted much longer that the 1950s and was more insidious than in the South because it was much more subtle and less overtly racist in its implementation. Plus, it appeared more genteel vis-a-vis Jim Crow. Surgue’s book *Sweet Land of Liberty* is a good volume on this.

    I saw your comment on John (Turner’s) fine two-part review of Dupont’s book and would love to connect.


  • Kevin Osborne

    I’d say a further purpose is to allow all who operate within the structure of the nation freedom to do so on an equal basis. This requires definition of both the structure and of those who are allowed to operate within. At this point the Feds in general are not operating with a practical definition of either and are therefore doing some mighty strange things.