The Decline of the Idea of Caste

Setting the Stage for Brown v. Board of Education

By Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware

Fifty years ago—on May 17, 1954, to be precise—the Supreme Court published its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. By doing so, the high Court gave a tremendous boost to the modern civil rights movement that forever changed American race relations. The decision, authored by recently appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared segregation in public schools inherently unconstitutional.

The decision was revolutionary. A half century earlier, in 1896, the Supreme Court had declared in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities were consistent with the Constitution. Although Plessy addressed segregation on a New Orleans railroad car, the decision had much broader implications. It sanctioned the system of American apartheid, Jim Crow, that was emerging in the South and elsewhere at the beginning of the 20th century.

What was Jim Crow? The term comes from a character in an 1800s minstrel show and refers to a complete system of segregation present in almost every observable facet of public life. Colored and white signs were placed on water fountains, park benches, waiting rooms in train stations, and restrooms. The system could be absurd and petty: separate sections for black and white patrons in movie theaters, or separate bibles for black and white witnesses in courtrooms. It could also be deadly: separate hospitals for blacks and whites, with black patients dying in emergencies because they could not be admitted to white hospitals. It also included restrictions that made it impossible for all but a handful of African Americans to vote in southern states, despite the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution had outlawed racial restrictions on voting. (For a sample of Jim Crow laws, see the sidebar "Legislating Jim Crow.") And there were separate schools for colored children; schools that had a fraction of the funding that white schools had; schools that often had children of different ages, grades, and abilities crowded into one-room cardboard shacks with holes in the roofs; schools that frequently had no books, schools where sometimes even the teachers barely had a grade-school education.

It was this system of Jim Crow that the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was formed to fight. Brown would be the organization's greatest victory. The decision represented the triumph of a brilliant, multi-decade litigation strategy to dismantle legally mandated segregation (see accompanying article). But the Brown victory was also the product of profound cultural change. To understand that transformation, we have to appreciate the profound changes in racial attitudes that occurred in America in the first half of the 20th century.

*  *  *

From our vantage point at the beginning of the 21st century, it is easy to forget how commonplace, even respectable, open expressions of bigotry were at the beginning of the last century. In 1909, when the NAACP was founded, the United States was not only a land of strict legal segregation in the South, where nearly 90 percent of the black population lived; it was also a society where whites often felt free, indeed encouraged, to assault the dignity, safety, and even lives of Negroes* on a routine basis. The use of racial epithets—nigger, coon, darky, pickaninny, jigaboo, and the rest—was routine. A black man, woman, or child might encounter such language from a thug in the streets, in the speeches of a politician, in the writings of a novelist, or even in a popular song like the "Darktown Strutters Ball."

More sinister expressions of raw racism also infected early 20th-century America. Towns posted signs warning Afro-Americans to leave before sundown. Newspapers and prominent politicians routinely defended lynchings in editorials and speeches. Race riots occurred, during which white mobs terrorized black communities while police ignored the carnage or even assisted the mobs.

But in the years before America's 1917 declaration of war on Imperial Germany, raw racism was not the monopoly of the untutored mob or even the demagogic politician or tabloid editor—it was the received wisdom of many of the most learned men and women of the day. Racism was an integral part of the curriculum at the nation's leading universities. Eminent biologists taught scientific racism and extolled the virtues of eugenics. Leading sociologists made the case for Social Darwinism (in which concepts from evolutionary biology, such as "survival of the fittest," were used to justify whites' superior status). The most prominent historians told their students that Reconstruction was a "tragic era" and that the resulting Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were Constitutional mistakes; African Americans, agreed the leading historians of the time, should not have been granted equal rights or enfranchised by the Constitution. The courts noticed.

Few white Americans were prepared to seriously challenge the view that had become deeply woven into the fabric of American culture, the belief that Afro-Americans were a separate caste, a group apart. Even in the relatively liberal cities of the North, black workers found little welcome in the newly developing factories or in the skilled trades that employed white workers, including immigrants. Residential segregation was on the increase. Racial violence, though less pronounced than in the South, was still common. Even many of the day's leading social thinkers, including progressive intellectuals, believed that African Americans were biologically inferior. Upton Sinclair's sociological novel The Jungle is quite instructive on this score. With sympathy and passion, Sinclair's novel portrays the desperate plight of Eastern European immigrants caught up in the harsh working world of the Chicago slaughterhouses at the turn of the century. The same novel dismisses its Negro characters as semihuman, hulking brutes.

This atmosphere can help us understand why the federal judiciary was willing to ignore the Constitution and permit Jim Crow and disfranchisement. Judges were a part of the larger culture. They shared the racist sentiments of their day, including the conventional wisdom that the egalitarian sentiment that had placed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments into the Constitution was a mistake.

World War I

This atmosphere began to change, but only slowly. America's participation in the First World War played an indirect role in this change. The Army was strictly segregated. The treatment of black troops was shabby for a nation that fought "to make the world safe for democracy." Most black soldiers were confined to work as menial laborers. The Marine Corps and Army Air Service excluded Negroes altogether. Afro-Americans could only serve as mess attendants—uniformed cooks and officers' servants—in the Navy. Opportunities for promotion were limited. The Army frequently refused to give medals for heroism to Negro soldiers who had clearly earned them. Black troops were lectured, sometimes on the battlefields of France, not to expect political or social equality when they returned from "over there." But the Army, even with all its discrimination, exposed many Afro-Americans from the rural South to a very different way of life. They left their restricted communities. They were paid according to rank, not color. They saw black men in positions of authority, mostly corporals and sergeants, but also an occasional lieutenant or captain. One of those World War I officers, Charles Hamilton Houston, would later transform Howard Law School and become one of Thurgood Marshall's mentors.

Despite often harsh discipline and demeaning segregation, the experience for many black soldiers was oddly liberating. It fostered a new assertiveness, particularly among the 200,000 who had served with the American Expeditionary Forces. This new assertiveness was particularly unwelcome in the South, where, in 1919, a number of returning black doughboys were lynched in uniform. But that was not the reaction everywhere. In New York City, a black National Guard Regiment was welcomed home with a ticker tape parade. Chicago also held a parade for its returning Negro National Guard Regiment (although that city would also be the scene of a bloody race riot in 1919).

World War I also played an important role in moving large numbers of Negroes from the rural South to the cities of the North and West, beginning what historians have called the "Great Migration." The increased need for factory labor and the fact that the war curtailed European immigration helped bring a growing number of African Americans to the North. This helped heighten racial tensions in northern cities, but it also provided new opportunities for many blacks. Northern cities provided Negroes with better educational opportunities, better incomes, and the right to vote. All of these would strengthen the NAACP and other civil rights groups. The black presence in the cities would also strengthen the small, but growing, group of Afro-American academics, intellectuals, and writers—the people who were a vital part of the Harlem Renaissance and its counterparts in other cities. Over time, these people would play a role in changing American thoughts on race.

After the First World War, thinking on race changed—slowly. Fewer and fewer educated people were prepared to defend the kind of scientific racism that prevailed at the start of the century. The growth of the social sciences played an important role in this rethinking. Increasingly, scholars like anthropologist Franz Boas were convincing educated men and women that culture and social environment, not biology, were largely responsible for observable differences among groups.

The Great Depression

By the 1930s, in northern cities, the increasing African-American population voted in growing numbers. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was increasingly reaching out to this constituency with relief measures for those hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. It should also be quickly added that Roosevelt took great pains not to offend the segregationist order in the South. There was discrimination in the administration of New Deal relief measures; the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work-relief program for unemployed youth, was largely segregated; Roosevelt was reluctant to support a national anti-lynching bill—a measure that was strongly urged by the NAACP; and, he did little to alleviate gross racial discrimination in the peacetime armed forces. Nonetheless, for the first time in American history, substantial numbers of black voters began to support the Democratic Party. And, if Franklin Roosevelt was somewhat reluctant to embrace the cause of civil rights and Negro equality, his wife Eleanor had no such reticence. She was a public and vigorous champion of civil rights, often to the consternation of her more racially conservative husband. Her actions often had an important symbolic value that went far beyond the official powerlessness of her position as first lady. In 1939, Eleanor sent a powerful symbolic message to Americans, black and white, when she arranged for Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial after the Afro-American singer had been barred from performing at the Concert Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The decade of the Great Depression brought other changes. Increasingly, although by no means unanimously, social scientists and historians were rejecting earlier notions of inherent racial inferiority. This rejection was aided by the arrival in the 1930s of a significant number of influential European scholars, many of them Jewish refugees from the Nazi regime who had devastating firsthand experience with the consequences of pseudoscientific racism. Another important development was the growing popularity of Freudian psychology, which introduced university-educated Americans to such concepts as unconscious and subconscious motivations for behavior. These concepts would later prove important in studies of racial prejudice and the effects of prejudice and discrimination on blacks and other minority groups. Two important contributions to the field of Afro-American studies, W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction (1935) and Melville Herskovits's The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), began to suggest a richer and more complex African-American past than had previously been presented by the American historical profession. Although both works had a rather muted influence at the time of their publications, the influence of both would grow after the Second World War.

World War II

The Second World War would help bring about profound changes in the racial thinking of many ordinary white Americans, but not all at once. The Army was still firmly committed to segregation. Blacks and whites were in separate units. The Army planned to largely restrict Negroes to positions as uniformed laborers, reserving combat and technical positions for white soldiers. The Air Corps, under presidential prodding, had finally begun, reluctantly, to train Afro-Americans as pilots and in aircraft maintenance and other technical specialties. But Air Corps leaders wanted to severely restrict those opportunities, preferring to keep black soldiers as uniformed laborers. The Navy and Coast Guard were even more restrictive. They wanted to again confine Negroes to a servants' role as mess attendants, as those services had largely done in the First World War. The Marines wanted to exclude African Americans altogether. They reluctantly admitted their first black recruits in 1942, when required to by law.

The armed forces may have wanted a severely limited role for black troops, but the political pressure generated by the NAACP and other civil rights supporters helped open new opportunities for African-American men (and later women) in uniform. But it was not just political pressure that forced new opportunities in the armed forces. The sheer scope of the military effort made unprecedented demands on manpower. Fighting occurred on every inhabited continent and in the adjacent oceans. American forces were stationed around the world.

The unprecedented demands of global war threw a monkey wrench into the plans of those who wanted only a severely restricted role for Negroes in the armed forces. Manpower demands forced the military to place black men and women in unaccustomed military roles. The Army, often with considerable reluctance, found itself employing black men in combat roles. Black men who had been mustered into the Navy and Coast Guard to act as officers' servants could be found firing antiaircraft guns or manning landing craft in amphibious assaults. The Air Corps, who had proclaimed before the war that blacks did not have the intelligence to fly planes, had all black fighter squadrons. Those squadrons, formed into the 332nd Fighter Group and known as the Tuskegee Airmen, saw action in the Mediterranean and European theaters. Three members of that group had the first confirmed kills of Luftwaffe jets over Berlin. Even the Marines were forced to accept some 20,000 Negro enlisted men during the war.

As in the First World War, the treatment of black men and women in the armed forces was often shabby. Units were segregated. Jim Crow was applied to mess halls and latrines, Chapels and USOs. Negro MPs guarding German and Italian prisoners of war in the United States found that their prisoners could eat in restaurants reserved for whites, while they, the American soldiers guarding them, could not. Some Afro-American soldiers were lynched in uniform in southern towns near their training camps. And in some overseas theaters of operation, racial tensions ran so high that black and white units even fired their weapons at each other.

Racism and racial discrimination were not confined to those in uniform—or even to Afro-Americans. In 1942, Roosevelt signed an Executive Order forcibly removing and interning all people of Japanese descent, citizens and aliens, from the West Coast. Jim Crow would remain strong throughout the South and in a good many other venues as well. Race riots, often precipitated by cases of police brutality, broke out in a number of northern cities. Two of the more serious of these occurred in Detroit and New York. Jim Crow even came to blood banks. Although Charles Drew, an African-American physician, had played a leading role in developing procedures for collecting and storing whole blood, the Red Cross nonetheless labeled blood by the race of the donor. This practice was followed in both civilian and military hospitals.

*  *  *

Despite the often strident racism found in the armed forces, the military experience would again provide a strange liberation for many of the more than one million Negroes who served in uniform during the war. As in the First World War, black men and now a few black women held positions of authority as noncommissioned and commissioned officers. These officers were limited to leading Negro units to be sure, but they had positions of authority that would have been inconceivable for black people in civilian life. Many learned advanced technical skills. The war caused people whose world had been confined to the limited horizons of the rural South or the emerging ghettoes of northern cities to experience a far broader world than the one in which they had been raised. More than 500,000 black men and women served in the European and Pacific theaters.

The war would also bring significant changes for African-American civilians. The wartime economy created a great demand for industrial workers. Black men and women left sharecropping in the shadows of southern plantations to work in factories producing tanks in Detroit or aircraft in Los Angeles. The war accelerated the move of the Afro-American population from the largely rural South to the increasingly urban and more liberal North and West.

Military experience and the movement to the cities helped create a new awareness of and demand for rights on the part of blacks. Negro newspapers probably had the greatest influence in their history as they battled against Jim Crow in the military. The Pittsburgh Courier was particularly effective in this regard. Black workers used the wartime need for manpower to press against established barriers to industrial employment. Negroes of that generation spoke of a double V: V for victory against the Axis overseas and V for victory against racism at home.

The status of blacks also received a boost from Hollywood. During World War II, the Army and Navy commissioned actors to make propaganda films designed to keep up the public's morale. In addition, the major studios all made patriotic war films designed to bolster public support and to sell war bonds. From this, a new film image for the Negro was born. The shiftless comic of 1930s movies was out. The heroic Negro soldier was in. Under prodding from both the NAACP and the military services, movies began to show blacks' contributions to the war effort. Black servicemen even found a level of integration on film that was usually denied to Negro soldiers in the real armed forces. Hollywood director Frank Capra, a wartime Lieutenant Colonel in the Signal Corps, produced the film The Negro Soldier (1944), that presented to civilian and military audiences a sympathetic and heroic portrayal of black soldiers. The Air Corps produced Wings for this Man (1945), a documentary that depicted the training of black pilots and the combat operations of the 332nd Fighter Group. That documentary was narrated by actor turned Air Corps Captain Ronald Reagan. His narration ended with a plea for fairness: "You don't judge a man by the shape of his nose or the color of his skin."

Did these cinematic depictions, civilian and military, provide audiences with a realistic portrayal of Negroes in the armed forces? No. Racism, segregation, and discrimination were not mentioned at all. The black soldier was depicted as contented and accepted, concerned only with performing his duties and defeating the enemy. But, simplistic as these portrayals were, they provided Afro-Americans with a new and decidedly improved image with the white public.

If these wartime celluloid epics began to change the white public's image of Americans of African descent, new writings in the social sciences, spurred on in part by the life and death struggle with Nazi racism, were beginning to cause educated elites to view the dismantling of racial prejudice as a national and indeed moral imperative. Many began to see the irony of a crusade against Nazi Germany with its racist ideology being waged by a nation with an entrenched caste system. Clearly the most important work on race at this time was Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, published in 1944. Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist, provided a massive sociological examination of prejudice and discrimination in the United States. An American Dilemma was particularly influential because it emphasized the contradiction between professed American ideals of democracy and equality and the stark harshness of black lives under America's Jim Crow regime.

Myrdal and others in the social sciences were informing university-educated audiences about the problem of racism. This new perspective would resonate in postwar America. Americans had been forced to take a hard, awful look at where racism could lead. That look began when ordinary men, GIs in the European theater, stumbled across not only the unbelievable, but the inconceivable—killing grounds with names like Dachau, Buchenwald, and Malthausen. These camps left an impression that would never be erased in the minds of the men who actually walked through them, including their commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Nuremberg trials, as well as massive press coverage of Nazi atrocities, served to inform the wider American public of the horrors of the Third Reich's Final Solution. All of this would make the easy yet deep racial prejudice that was common earlier in the century far less respectable after the Second World War.

*  *  *

By the postwar era, the ground had shifted significantly. Racism, at times deep racism, still existed. Legal segregation prevailed throughout the South. De facto segregation and discrimination existed throughout the nation. But racism lacked the strong backing of leading institutions and cultural elites that it had enjoyed earlier in the century. And more ordinary white Americans were beginning to see racism as un-American, incompatible with the ideals for which they had recently sacrificed so much during the war. Other changes also came. Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball, President Truman's desegregation of the armed forces, and the 1948 election in which Truman proved that a Democrat could win without compromising with the segregationist South—all indicated that a new era of race and national culture was dawning. The Supreme Court began to respond to the new racial atmosphere. For example, in the 1948 case Shelly v. Kramer, the Court prevented lower courts from enforcing racially restrictive home-buying covenants.

These cultural changes created fertile ground for the decision in Brown. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1954 decision, we should recognize that Brown v. Board of Education represented a legal milestone. But it represented something more. Brown also reflected profound cultural change. The nation had become uneasy with its most vexing contradiction, racial discrimination in a democratic society. That unease helped produce Brown and the still-unfinished struggle that would follow.


Robert J. Cottrol is Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and professor of history and sociology at George Washington University. Raymond T. Diamond is C.J. Morrow Research Professor of Law and adjunct professor of African Diaspora studies at Tulane University. Leland B. Ware is Louis L. Redding Chair for the Study of Law and Public Policy at the University of Delaware. These articles were especially adapted for American Educator by Robert J. Cottrol from Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution, by Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003) by permission of the publisher.

*One word on terminology: There has been a tendency for the better part of the last generation for historians to explain, often somewhat apologetically, about the use of the term Negro. We will explain, but not apologetically. Negro was the name most African Americans called themselves throughout most of American history. They did so with pride and respect. We will treat the name in the same way. (back to article)

Related Articles

Jim's Crow's Schools
By Peter Irons

The Decline of the Idea of Caste
Setting the Stage for Brown v. Board
By Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware

NAACP v. Jim Crow
The Legal Strategy That Brought Down "Separate but Equal" by Toppling School Segregation
By Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware

Legislating Jim Crow

Teachers' Roles in Ending School Segregation

Teaching about Brown

Share This
Print