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The Path Toward Desegregation: 1954 & Ruby Bridges

Posted by Casey Kelley on

Two Monumental Civil Rights Movements

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” These are the wise words of Malcolm X, minister, human rights activist, and lifelong supporter and proponent of black culture. If education is the passport to the future, it is imperative that each and every student is presented with an equal opportunity to make this journey to greatness and success. However, for the majority of American history, this has not been true for black students in our country. It wasn’t until 1954 in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka that blacks were permitted to attend formerly all-white schools, and it wasn’t until years after this groundbreaking case that public schools became desegregated in the South. Being that our designs are based upon this groundbreaking case leading to the end of educational segregation in America, we’d like to explore the difference between the 1954 decision and Ruby Bridges’ role in the civil rights movement.

Jim Crow Era

Previous to the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, an equally monumental 1896 court case, Plessy vs. Ferguson, upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine in America. This hearing upheld the doctrine that racially segregated public facilities were legal, so long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal. This meant that blacks could be legally barred from public schools, buses and other public facilities. Back in 1892, Homer Plessy refused to sit on a train car with all blacks. This was following a movement by state legislature in the 1880’s requiring all railroads to provide separate cars for “colored” passengers. After refusing to leave the whites-only train car, Plessy was arrested and jailed.

Plessy cited the 14th Amendment in is hearing, stating that his equal rights were not being protected by the act of segregation in public facilities. The court found that the 14th Amendment only protected political and civil rights, such as voting or jury service, not social rights, including sitting on the railroad car of your choice. Plessy vs. Ferguson ensured the survival of Jim Crow era segregation in America for decades to come.

Brown vs. The Board of Education

It wasn’t until 1950 that there was a monumental breakthrough in desegregating American schools. This began with the journey of Linda Brown, a resident of Topeka, Kansas that lived about four blocks from an all-white school. Brown and her father walked through the doors of that very school in 1950, requested and being denied enrollment to the school. This request was part of a larger movement being made by their local NAACP chapter to join 200 other plaintiffs to challenge segregation in schools on a national level. Twelve other parents were denied enrollment, leading to these parents also filing their own suits.

Brown’s case and four others were combined to create Brown vs. The Board of Education, a case to be seen by the Supreme Court in 1952. Brown argued that the black and white schools available in her area were not equal in quality, violating the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment. This clause states that no state can “deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”. Contrary to the findings of the court in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court found that the segregation of public schools had a “detrimental effect upon the colored children”, contributing to “a sense of inferiority”. Ultimately, in 1954, the Supreme Court declared that the segregation of children in schools based on skin color was unconstitutional and that segregated schools were inherently unequal.

Ruby Bridges and Desegregating the American South

Although Brown vs. the Board of Education was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, setting the precedent that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal, there was resistance from southern states to desegregate public schools. As black Americans began working toward receiving equal education opportunities as other students, this movement was spearheaded by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. Bridges was the first black child to attend a formerly all-white school in the South in 1960, six years after the declaration.

This journey toward equality began when Bridges entered her kindergarden year and was given a test to determine whether or not she could attend an white school. In 1960, the NAACP informed bridges that she was one out of just six students to pass this test that had been designed to be particularly difficult for students to pass. This meant that Bridges would be the first black student to attend an all white school in the American south, William Frantz school.

Though this breakthrough paved the way for civil rights actions in the future, it also led to Bridges and her family facing a seemingly unending stream of discrimination and difficulty. The very admittance of Bridges made white parents deeply enraged, as protestors rallied to William Frantz to hastle our young heroine, going so far as to hurl insults and objects toward her. On her first day of school in November 14, 1960, Bridges had to be escorted through the crowd of angry protestors by her mother and several U.S. marshals.

Although public schools had been desegregated at at this point in time, classrooms had not. This meant that Bridges was secluded from white students in a classroom by herself, being taught by one volunteer, Mrs. Barbara Henry. After receiving repeated threats from protestors, the school required Bridges to bring her own lunches for fear of her school lunch being poisoned. She continued to be escorted through the school by federal marshals for her safety, even when visiting the restroom. Despite all of these trials and tribulations, Bridges and her family remained strong, realizing the importance and gravity of the opportunity to receive a quality education a matter of blocks away from their home.

A Look Toward the Future

Although civil rights leaders the likes of Linda Brown and Ruby Bridges have worked to pave the way for equal education opportunities for all, there is still a long and arduous path ahead of us truly achieve this goal. From the days of these cornerstone civil rights movements, we continue to push forward past the obstacles and diversity that face us, to become successful entrepreneurs, business owners and college graduates. At 1954, we continue to share our mission of empowerment of our future black leaders of America through the support of their education with quality products that encourage them to do their best. Celebrate these monumental breakthroughs in equality with our signature 1954 “The Headlines” backpack and bags, showcasing the news that made history with Brown vs. the Board of Education.

Shop "The Headlines" Backpack Here!

1954 vs. Ruby Bridges



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