Western History & Genealogy Blog

Civil Rights in the American West

Last week Denver Public Library’s David Johnson offered an eloquent reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech, which inspired me to write about the sometimes neglected role of the West in the history of American civil liberties, and, on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, to offer some suggestions from the many recent books on civil rights in the American West.

The struggle for civil liberties was neither confined to the South, nor exclusively to the period of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s known as the Civil Rights Era. Pivotal moments in school desegregation, for example, occurred west of the Mississippi River, part of an older and broader effort to redress inequality and injustice. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which reversed the Supreme Court’s earlier “separate but equal” doctrine (Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 [1896]), addressed school segregation in Kansas. The unanimous Brown decision and other decisions are available online in various places, but one of the most useful and accessible collections is maintained by Cornell University Law School’s LII (Legal Information Institute).

In part, the road to Brown was paved by an earlier case (Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 [1950]), which applied “separate but equal” to force the University of Texas to admit an African-American student to its law school, a story told in a new book by Gary M. Lavergne, Before Brown: Herman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice, recently reviewed in the Austin American Statesman by Charles D. Russell, a professor at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. A copy of Before Brown is available for use in the Western History & Genealogy collection.

Likewise, Arkansas lies entirely to the west of the Mississippi River, and the integration of Little Rock Central High School has produced a flurry of books in recent years, including a memoir by Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, a longtime resident of Colorado, a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, and a member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School is available both in circulating copies in several branches, and for use in the Western History & Genealogy collection.

And school desegregation had a history elsewhere in the West. Most notably, Philippa Strum’s new book, Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights, traces the development of a 1947 case in California which saw the state supreme court find separate facilities for Hispanic students contrary to California law. A copy of Mendez v. Westminster is available for use in the Western History & Genealogy department. Hector Tobar, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, recently offered a profile of the students and community involved in the Mendez case, and its neglected role in civil rights history.

And, finally, Denver’s own history of school segregation can be explored in the print, manuscript, photographic, and oral history collections of the Denver Public Library’s Western History & Genealogy Department and the Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Center. Why not begin your exploration with the Park Hill neighborhood history on our Creating Communities website, and its account of Rachel Noel’s pivotal role in integrating Denver schools, or with the history of the color line in the history of Five Points and Whittier neighborhoods? And, then, delve deeper with the librarians and archivists at these two extraordinary collections.