Brown (1954) and the death of Emmett Till (1955)

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Learning aims:

Key terms

  • Brown vs US Board of Education, Topeka, 1954
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • The Doll Test
  • Earl Warren (chief justice on the Supreme Court, appointed by Eisenhower in 1953 – but later alleged to have said ‘biggest damned fool mistake I ever made’)
  • Integrate/integration of schools (implication of Brown)
  • White backlash
  • White supremacy
  • Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
  • Lynchings
  • Emmet Till
  • White flight (emerged as a response to integration, and created de factosegregation)
  • White Citizens Councils (emerged to resist integration following Brown)
  • Acquittal
  • Catalyst

Key Events

  • 1954 17th May – The Brown versus US Board of Education, Topeka verdict announced
  • 1954 21st May – Jo Ann Robinson writes to Mayor Gayle of Montgomery threatening a boycott of the busses
  • 1955, 24th August, Emmett Till is abducted by Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, beaten, shot and thrown in the river where the body is found on 31st August
  • 1955 September – Bryant and Milam are acquitted by an all-white jury after just an hour of deliberate. Later Bryant and Milam confessed to the crime in a magazine article just a few months later, protected by the law on double jeopardy
  • 1955 – December 1st – Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to give up her seat to allow a white man to sit on his own at the front of the coloured section when the white section was already full. Later she said that she had been thinking about Emmet Till at the time.
  • 1955 – December 5th – Holt Street Baptist Church meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association and beginning of the Bus Boycott
  • 1956 January – bombing of Martin Luther King’s House
  • 1957 – Little Rock High School incident
  • Watch the first 25 minutes of the following documentary on the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement:
  1. Brown versus US Board of Education, Topeka, and its impact
    In 1951, the NAACP persuaded the parents of Linda Brown to take their case to court when their daughter, Linda Brown, was refused entry to the Summer Elementary School in the town of Topeka, Kansas. The case was rejected because of the Plessy versus Ferguson ruling which upheld segregation laws so long as accommodations were ‘equal’ as well as ‘separate’. An appeal by the NAACP, together with four other cases which were grouped together, was brought before the Supreme Court in December 1952 but before the trial began a new judge, Earl Warren, became the chief Justice. The NAACP lawyer, Thurgood Marshall called upon expert witnesses such as the psychologist Dr Kenneth Clark. The latter presented his findings from an experiment known as the ‘doll’ test in which black children were found to choose white over black dolls. The plaintiff argued that black children lacked self-esteem as a result of segregation laws even if the schools were equal in terms of funding and facilities. On 17th May 1954, The court concluded that segregation harmed the minority group and therefore contravened the US Constitution. The Brown ruling therefore overturned Plessy versus Ferguson and set a new precedent in such cases. A year later a second Supreme Court ruling decided that school desegregation should happen ‘with all deliberate speed’, with states making a ‘prompt and reasonable start.’

    In summing up, Earl Warren stated:

    ‘To separate children from others of a similar age and qualification solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone. We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore we hold that the plaintiffs [people bringing the case] and others similarly situated are deprived of equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.’

    The results of the verdict were mixed. Schools in towns and cities outside the Deep South started to integrate but progress was slow. Many African American schools that had previously provided a good education were closed down and its teachers struggled to be appointed at the integrated school. Black students would now be subject to racial abuse in those places. In some towns and cities the integration of schools led to ‘white flight’, as white families moved out to the country to leave the inner city schools to black students. The worst impact was in the Deep South where White Citizens’ councils formed in protest and in worst cases the Ku Klux Klan became popular again. On the other hand, for the first time, black civil rights campaigners felt that the system was beginning to change.

    Bayard Rustin, interviewed by the Eyes on the Prize documentary team said the following:

      ‘I think the beginning of this period from 1954 has its roots in the returning soldiers after 1945. There was a great feeling on the part of many of these youngsters… that they were not getting what they should have…. There was a building up of militancy, not so much by going into the streets as by a feeling of ‘We are not going to put up with this anymore.’ What was lacking was that they did not have the Supreme Court backing them. But when the Supreme Court came out with the Brown decision in ’54, things began rapidly to move. Some of us had been sitting down in the front of these buses for years, but nothing had happened. What made ’54 so unusual was that the Supreme Court in the Brown decision established black people as being citizens with all the rights of all other citizens. Once that had happened, then it was very easy for that militancy, which had been building up, to express itself in the Montgomery bus boycott of ’55-’56.’

      Excerpt found in Hampton, H. & Fayer, S. Voices of Freedom, An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. London: Vintage (1995), pp. xxvii-xxviii:

    It is notable that only 4 days after the verdict was reached (to the joy of the NAACP across the country), Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, Alabama, wrote to her Mayor complaining about the racial abuse received by black people from white bus drivers and threatening a boycott of the system.

    Further Reading


    • Read Earl Warren’s summing up above. Explain the reasons the Supreme Court Did what it did
    • Create a mind map of the consequences of the Brown decision (list the positives and the negatives)
    • What different reactions do you think people might have had to the Brown decision?
    • Exam style question: Explain two effects of the Brown versus Topeka decision on the USA (8 marks)
  2. The revival of the Ku Klux KlanThe day of the Supreme Court’s decision became known as ‘Black Monday’ among white southerners who opposed what they saw as un-elected judges interfering with the rights of their States. White Citizens’ Councils were set up to put pressure on state authorities to maintain segregation despite the court’s decision, through organised protest and petitions. Many WCC members also joined the KKK. The Klan’s activities (from placing burning crosses in the gardens of civil rights’ supporters, to planting a bomb at the door of Martin Luther King’s house in Montgomery) grew along with the growth of civil rights movements.
  3. The death of Emmett Till
    The Brown verdict increased tensions in the Deep South and led to increased violence. The most notable example of this was the murder of the 14-year-old Emmett Till, visiting the town of Money in Mississippi from his home in the north, Chicago, Illinois in the summer of 1955. On the 24th August Carolyn Bryant accused him of flirting and even touching her whilst alone in a shop and that outside he had whistled at her. That evening, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped him, beat him, shot him in the head and threw the body in the river. Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley refused to have the body buried quickly and instead insisted on an open coffin so that everyone could see what had been done to her child. Photographs were published throughout the country and the trial of the accused, Bryant and Milam was widely reported across America. the all-white, all-male jury found the defendants ‘not guilty’. Angered by the lack of justice – especially after Bryant and Milam, protected by the double jeopardy law, later confessed to a magazine – African Americans felt motivated to take an active part in bringing about change. In addition, white people in the north of the country began to see what was happening in the south for the first time.

    Emmett Till’s death therefore acted as a catalyst for Civil Rights Action. It is worth noting that the Civil Rights Movement coincided with the spread of TV ownership. In 1950 only 9% of US homes had TV sets (6 million). By 1955 this had shot up to 64.5%. By 1962 90% of homes (48.9 million) had TVs. See TVHistory


    • Read Taylor, pp. 27-28
    • How do you think a) African Americans and b) white residents of Mississippi would have reacted to Source G?
    • Read Source H carefully. what was the role of a) the police and b) white supporters of Bryant and Milam in getting them acquitted.
    • Identify two key consequences of the death of Emmet Till
    • Why do some historians consider the death of Emmett Till to be so important for the civil rights movement
    • Which do you think was more significant – the Brown verdict or the Emmett Till murder? (How are you going to judge?)
    • Exam style question: ‘The main effect of the Brown versus Topeka decision on African Americans was in the increase in violence against them.’
      How far do you agree? Explain your answer
      You may use the following in your answer:

      • Brown versus Topeka
      • the murder of Emmet Till.

      You must also use information of your own.

    • How to do the (c) question above
      • Think about the key events/facts; and make sure that you make use of them!
      • Think about the negatives that occurred as a result of Brown – the implications for existing black schools and teachers; the white backlash of White Citizens’ councils; KKK; sporadic violence that led to the murder of Emmet Till and the bombing of Martin Luther King’s home in in 1956;
      • Then think about the positives: both Brown and the murder of Emmet catalysed black consciousness and a rise in black activism.
      • Which side was more important and why?

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