The Federal Government's Reluctance to Stand up to Segregationist State Governments

From the mid 1860’s-the time of the end of the Civil War, two major issues have rippled through the fabric of the American experiment- the questions of state’s rights over the power of the federal government to enforce federal law, and the acknowledgement of the rights restored to African Americans via the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. In this paper, the increasing militant aspects of the Civil Rights Movement will be discussed in terms of how this process was accelerated by the hesitance of the federal government to enforce desegregation in the states that all but ignored federal mandate.

Segregation in State Governments in Historical Context

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An essential understanding of the history of segregation in state governments is essential in order to be able to ultimately come to the realization of why segregationist state governments have led to a militant exrpession of the Civil Rights Movement.  Research indicates that segregationist state governments were not a creation of the modern Civil Rights Movement, but were in existence from the post-Civil War period, when states had to address the issue of recently freed African American slaves, and more precisely, how to extend their newly acquired rights to them (Musterd, 2003).  While discrimination has been a thorn in the side of America from its inception, before the Civil War, the question of desegregation did not exist to any measurable extent due to the fact that most African Americans were held as slaves, with no rights, and the African Americans who were freed men essentially formed their own communities and since they had little or no interaction with whites, had no problems in terms of the pursuit of rights.  The strength in numbers of these improvised communities generally provided all of the protections that were required.  With the preservation of the Union as a result of the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery, there emerged the question of the rights of African Americans .  At that time, it is likely that the states that remained segregated, despite federal laws to the contrary, were allowed to do so, as the pain of the Civil War still lingered, and the federal government was reluctant to engage states in any type of rights disputes at that time, setting the stage for the turbulence that would come in the future.

The Birth of the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the Disregard for Desegregation

It is generally accepted that the modern Civil Rights Movement had its genesis with the passage of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which, at least on paper, ordered that the public schools of the United States be open to African Americans, and that it would be illegal to deny African Americans access to these schools (Landman, 2004).  While it was assumed that the power of a federal mandate would simply open the doors of equal opportunity for African Americans, there existed in the immediate aftermath of the Brown case a massive resistance to segregation, led by one of the most prominent Southern states, champion of state’s rights, and segregationists, the Commonwealth of Virginia.  This resistance came in the form of a great deal of legal appeals to the Brown ruling, as well as more insidious activities such as violence against African Americans, intimidation, and social ridicule.  In many cases, African Americans, whether as a show of defiance or in an effort to defend themselves, met force with force, beginning what may have been the first rumblings of a more militant Civil Rights movement, that now combined strong opinions and ambitions to be free with strong physical resistance and violence (Norton, 2005).

Federal Reluctance in the Modern Civil Rights Movement

In a strange case of history repeating itself, many of the individual United States chose to ignore the actions that the federal government took to desegregate the nation and provide equity to African Americans.  Especially prevalent in the American south, the governors and other key political leaders of individual states assumed power upon themselves and basically challenged the federal government to respond to this ignorance.  The reasons why the federal government chose not to respond with decisive action in all cases of segregation are interesting and complex.

First, as with so many other issues, there were political ramifications to take into account.  In the 1950s, the Cold War was at its apex, and the United States was in the midst of an endless series of disputes with the Soviet Union which threatened not only the future of these two superpowers, but also the entire world as well due to the creation of atomic weapons and the very real possibility that they may be used.  Because of this very real concern for the future of the United States from external threats, the possibility of internal strife, and in the extreme another civil war, was not something that the federal government was even remotely interested in getting involved with; therefore, the federal government took a passive role in enforcing desegregation in the cases where it was being violated in the states themselves (Musterd, 2003).  Additional factors, including American involvement in the Korean War made a domestic dispute highly undesirable. On the surface, the political climate in the United States during the early years of the modern Civil Rights Movement.  In addition, there were social factors which kept the federal government out of the way of the segregationist state governments.

Social Segregation

Some sources make the assertion that the federal government may not have taken action against the state governments on the matter of enforcing desegregation because of the fact that many times the states indulged in social, rather than legal segregation.  What this means is that African Americans, in some instances, may not have been barred from attending schools or eating in restaurants, but they were taunted by whites, secretly intimidated, not chosen by voters for political office, and so forth (Marable, 1996).   While this was technically not illegal, it was morally repugnant and had the ability to provoke African Americans just as much as an outward violation of law would be.

The differentiation between political and social discrimination deserves a second mention; discriminating against minorities in a social context can still be driven by political leaders when they choose to not take any action against people whose behavior is unacceptable, harmful to others, but would be hard to prove in a court of law.

Overall, the ridicule that African Americans were forced to face at the hands of those who were motivated by political power, greed, and prejudice all had one common denominator- the effect of provoking African Americans to the point where they had no recourse in courts of law or in the public eye.  Therefore, the only avenue that was available for them to try to gain their rightful place in American society was to take on a militant stance and, as was alluded to earlier, push back against the forces of bigotry and hatred that still skirted the law and made minorities even more displeased.

Militant Action in the Modern Civil Rights Movement

The proof that the disregard of desegregation by some states, and the lack of enforcement of these violations by federal authorities eventually drove African Americans to the point of militant action can be seen in some of the actions that took place in those early years of the Civil Rights Movement.

One of the most literal expressions of militant action by African Americans came with the formation and mobilization of the Black Panther Party, consisting of disenfranchised African Americans who joined together in an effort to have their voice heard and gain equality in the parts of America, particularly the south, where their rights were violated, socially and politically, with armed resistance if necessary (Marable, 1996).  The Black Panthers did what no march or protest could- show the bigots of America that if they chose to violate the rights of African Americans, there is the distinct possibility that they will meet with swift retrobution.  Likewise, the Black Panthers frequently tangled with racial hatred groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  The KKK tried time after time to use their constitutional rights to violate the rights of minorities.  The Black Panthers used these same types of tactics to the advantage of the disadvantaged and oppose racism on a wide basis.

Responses to 21st Century Racism

In the 21st century, while the Black Panthers have faded from the limelight, racism in all of its ugliness still exists and African Americans are still provoked with regularity.  Luckily, in response, groups like the NAACP have taken up the cause of civil rights, and the struggle continues.


In this paper, it has been shown that while the federal government often fails to enforce civl rights laws, luckily, the people will rise up when needed to protect their rights.  From the 1950s to the present, the struggle has continued as has the paradox of the ugliness of hatred and the beauty of the triumph of good over evil when people assert themselves.