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Gallup Vault: 60 Years Ago, the End of 'Separate but Equal'

Gallup Vault: 60 Years Ago, the End of "Separate but Equal"

On Nov. 13, 1956, two years after the Supreme Court deemed racially separate schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law requiring segregated seating on city buses, trains and public waiting rooms. Several months later, Gallup found 60% of Americans supporting that ruling -- including 27% support in Southern states and 70% support outside the South.

1957: The Supreme Court has also ruled that racial segregation on trains, buses and in public waiting rooms must end. Do you approve or disapprove of this ruling?
U.S. adults South Non-South
% % %
Approve 60 27 70
Disapprove 33 64 22
No opinion 7 9 8
Gallup, July 18-23, 1957

The case, known as Browder v. Gayle, grew out of a yearlong boycott of the Montgomery city bus system by local blacks, in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a key player. That boycott followed the Dec. 1, 1955, arrest of Rosa Parks, a black woman, for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man.

Beyond the regional disagreement, approval of the court's decision in Browder was fairly broad across major U.S. subgroups, but there were gaps: 63% of Republicans nationwide agreed with it vs. 53% of Democrats. This partisan difference most likely reflects the concentration of Democrats in the South at that time. Further gaps in approval include 67% of those aged 21-29 vs. 56% of those 50 and older; 78% of those with at least some college education vs. 51% of those who never advanced beyond middle school; and 77% of blacks vs. 58% of whites.

Four years later, when Gallup asked the question again, 66% of Americans approved of the decision and 28% disapproved.

While perhaps not as celebrated as Brown v. Board of Education, Browder v. Gayle was the last major blow to the "separate but equal" policies that prevailed in the South after the Civil War. The New York Times put it this way on Nov. 14, 1956:

Although only Alabama laws were involved today, the ruling was interpreted as outlawing state or municipal enactments anywhere that require separation of the races on public vehicles. It was thought to have placed a headstone at the grave of Plessy v. Ferguson.

This was a case decided in 1896, in which the high court ruled that racial segregation on railroads was not unconstitutional if separate but equal facilities were provided.

The "separate but equal" doctrine later was applied to segregation in other fields, such as education, and generally prevailed until the high court's ruling in school cases.

Since then the doctrine has been discarded in every test that has been brought to the Supreme Court.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Browder v. Gayle provided "a reaffirmation of the principle that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that the old Plessy doctrine of separate but equal is no longer valid, either sociologically or legally.''

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

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