Mansfield Crisis, 1956 overview
In the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson – an 1896 Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling on the case that upheld “separate but equal” in direct opposition to the equal protection language of the Fourteenth Amendment – the institutionalization of segregation in the South restricted the social, economic, and political progress of African Americans in the region for the next fifty years with little disruption. However, the fight against inequalities abroad during World War II inspired a renewed hope for shared prosperity and opportunity at home, particularly among southern blacks. Within this climate of shifting attitudes, leaders at all levels of government and citizens alike grappled with the dilemma of segregation. In Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High, Robyn Duff Ladino argues that the complexities of race relations, inconsistencies in leadership, and varying degrees of conviction to realize integration contributed to the Mansfield crisis, and conversely the turmoil in the small Texas community both “forced the civil rights positions of national, state, and local elements to the forefront of the country’s conscience” and epitomized the complicated era of the early civil rights movement. Mansfield arguably influenced a different outcome in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, only one year later, and the significance of the crisis within broader civil rights narratives demonstrates the difficulty of breaking down the southern caste system at the local, state, and national levels.
At the national level, SCOTUS and President Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to provide a clear and well-defined, unified direction for the desegregation of public schools, allowing segregationists to prolong the status quo of inequality in the 1950s. The cautious and sometimes ambiguous decisions of SCOTUS continued to complicate progress toward integration and ultimately contributed to the Mansfield crisis. Three cases in the late 1940s – Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, and Henderson v. United States – offered the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and lead counsel of the Legal Defense and Education Fund (the legal research and litigation arm of the NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, an opportunity to challenge “separate but equal.” Although SCOTUS ruled favorably for all three cases on June 5, 1950, the court explained that the opinions only provided specific exceptions for higher education within the existing framework of Plessy v. Ferguson. Additionally, subsequent to the 1954 integration decree of Brown v. Board of Education (Brown I) SCOTUS issued the problematic 1955 implementation and enforcement decree (Brown II), remanding responsibility to the lower federal district courts. However, the vague timeline of “with all deliberate speed” in Brown II for public schools to comply with Brown I gave segregationists an open-ended extension of segregated schools, by their interpretation.
As aforementioned, the president in conjunction with SCOTUS contributed to the Mansfield crisis by means of passive leadership. Ladino describes President Eisenhower as a noncommittal moderate, to a fault, particularly in response to the volatile social and political climate of civil rights in the 1950s. Morally, Eisenhower supported desegregation and disdained the prejudice that fueled segregation. By contrast, his political ideology favored states’ rights, a limited executive branch, and because of his personal and political ties to the South an underlying support for gradual integration to coincide with a timeline amenable to the southern caste system. Although the President prompted integration for federal employment, the military, and the school system in the District of Columbia following the Brown I decision, he failed to publicly praise the Supreme Court’s ruling or pressure the South to expedite implementation following Brown II. The lack of unified direction from the executive and judicial branches of federal government cannot be overemphasized as a substantial influence on southern state and community responses to Brown I and II.
At the state level, geography in Texas affected local prejudices. The southern and western counties of the state trended toward a more moderate, accepting perspective of desegregation. However, the majority of black Texans lived in the eastern and central portions of the state, an area still steeped in Deep South culture due to a history of slavery and cotton economy and predominately opposed to integration. The sectional diversity of Texas signals that the state was not homogenous and the southern caste system did not permeate local politics and social relations throughout the state for that reason. Although, due to its higher population density, state politicians catered to the constituents of eastern Texas, including the controversial and powerful Governor Allan Shivers. In addition to his role as the highest official in the state’s Democratic Party, Shivers managed to extend his political influence to the White House. In exchange for Republican presidential nominee Eisenhower’s support for Texas ownership of offshore mineral rights in the Gulf of Mexico, Shivers, the Democrat, garnered his political capital in support for Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign. Suspiciously, President Eisenhower conveniently failed to recognize the conditions necessary for Executive intervention in the 1956 Mansfield crisis.
Finally, at the local level, the combined indecisive leadership of the Executive and Judiciary, the hope for integration of the NAACP, the prejudice of the Deep South portion of Texas and its champion Governor Shivers, and the national weight of decades of inequality for African Americans funnel into Mansfield, Texas and spill over onto a small black community on the west side of town, most of whom are hopeful for nothing more than better conditions – perhaps not even equality and integration, just more opportunities and a better quality of life. Oral histories, area newspapers, NAACP regional archives, and documents in the Mansfield Historical Society and Mansfield Library convey the anxieties of the town, the curiosity of outsiders, the anger of radical segregationists, and the fears of local African Americans. During an election year, President Eisenhower addressed the chaos in Mansfield, Texas – the state of unlikely political ally Shivers – on August 31, 1956 stating, “I think that no plank could satisfy everyone exactly…We are not going to settle this thing finally by great show of force and arbitrary action.” However, the following year, under similar circumstances, President Eisenhower managed exactly that, albeit it was not an election year nor was it in a state in which he had such unique ties to the governor. Ladino suggests that Mansfield could have been Little Rock; the crisis could have resulted in a different local outcome and consequently affected a more significant national response, and that powerful state and national politics influenced President Eisenhower to ignore Mansfield and react to Little Rock. Nonetheless, the Mansfield crisis forced individuals and politicians at the local, state, and national levels to confront the post-Brown I and II civil rights era actively, passively, or indifferently, and more importantly the southern caste system was being threatened with desegregation part of the national conscience.