The Struggle for Equality

Stephen and Paul Kendrick have written a book called Sarah's Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America (2004).  It describes the "fever for change" in Boston in the 1840s and 50s.  

During this period, Boston's Black population organized to end segregation on the railways.  They held sit-ins, refusing to move from railway cars reserved for whites.  They published a "traveler's directory" in the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, ranking the different railway companies in terms of their treatment of Black customers, and organizing boycotts of the worst offenders.  They pressed the state legislature to pass a law outlawing segregation on the railways. The trains were finally desegregated when the shareholders of companies argued that discrimination was costing too much money. 

Boston's Black population also pushed for the repeal of a law that banned interracial marriage.  Then they tackled the segregation of schools.  Roberts v. the City of Boston was a case involving a five-year-old Boston girl, Sarah Roberts, who had to walk past five all-white schools in order to reach her segregated school.  In this case, a pioneering African-American attorney, Robert Morris, and his co-counsel, Charles Sumner, crafted many of the arguments opposing school segregation that would be successful a century later when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education.

Speaking on Sarah Roberts' behalf before Lemuel Shaw, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Sumner argued in 1849 that the Massachusetts Constitution provided for "equality before the law," and that segregated schools were far inferior to white schools.  Furthermore, he said, both Blacks and whites were "injured by the separation."

His arguments did not convince Judge Shaw, who ruled that the schools were in fact "separate but equal" – using language which the US Supreme Court would employ to uphold segregation in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson

Sumner would later be brutally beaten on the floor of the US Senate by a Congressman from South Carolina because of his speeches opposing slavery.  After the Civil War he helped pass the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing the "equal protection of the laws."