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The Slow Undoing

The Federal Courts and the Long Struggle for Civil Rights in South Carolina

Stephen H. Lowe

Published: Jun 2 2021


Published: Jun 2 2021


Published: Jun 2 2021

OA Ebook
Published: Jun 2 2021


The inclusion of this book in the Open Carolina collection is made possible by the generous funding of

A study of how South Carolina's federal district courts were central to achieving and solidifying gains during the civil rights movement

As the first comprehensive study of one state's federal district courts during the long civil rights movement, The Slow Undoing argues for a reconsideration of the role of the federal courts in the civil rights movement. It places the courts as a central battleground at the intersections of struggles over race, law, and civil rights. During the long civil rights movement, Black and White South Carolinians used the courts as a venue to contest the meanings of the constitution, justice, equality, and citizenship.

African American plaintiffs and lawyers from South Carolina, with the support of Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, brought and argued civil rights lawsuits in South Carolina's federal courts attempting to secure the vote, raise teacher salaries, and to equalize and then desegregate schools, parks, and public life. In response, white citizens, state politicians, and local officials, hired their own lawyers who countered these arguments by crafting new legal theories in an attempt to defend state practices and thwart African American aspirations of equality and to preserve white supremacy.

The Slow Undoing argues for a reconsideration of the role of federal courts in the civil rights movement by demonstrating that both before and after Brown v. Board of Education, the federal district courts were centrally important to achieving and solidifying civil rights gains. It relies on the entire legal record of actions in the federal district courts of South Carolina from 1940 to 1970 to make the case. It argues that rather than relying on litigation during the pre-Brown era and direct action in the post-Brown era, African Americans instead used courts and direct action in tandem to bring down legal segregation throughout the long civil rights era. But the process was far from linear and the courts were not always a progressive force. The battles were long, the victories won were often imperfect, and many of the fights remain. Author Stephen H. Lowe offers a chronicle of this enduring struggle.

Listen to Steven Lowe on SC Public Radio's South Carolina Lede podcast

Listen to Steven Lowe on SC Public Radio's Walter Edgar's Journal

Stephen H. Lowe is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina Union and director of the liberal studies and organizational leadership programs for the University of South Carolina's Palmetto College.

"Stephen Lowe shows how citizen activists and their lawyers used direct action and litigation to undermine South Carolina's version of segregation through a careful and detailed examination of what actually happened in the federal courts."—Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law emeritus, Harvard Law School

"This is a book of great import, combining first-rate narrative and incisive analysis. Lowe provides the essential details that create the larger discourse of the national fight against Jim Crow. There is elegance and power in this critical story."—Orville Vernon Burton, author of Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court

"Lowe's work makes a powerful case that South Carolina has and continues to be the front line of Black struggles for equality and justice and an exemplar of White supremacy's dogged hold on American life and institutions."—Peter F. Lau, author of Democracy Rising: South Carolina and the Fight for Black Equality since 1865

"In this engaging and deeply researched book, Stephen Lowe explains that in the Palmetto State the federal courts served as the primary field of conflict where Blacks and Whites battled over competing visions of justice and law. Lowe's analysis of how "Freedom of Choice" was dismantled during the mid-to-late 1960s further distinguishes this work."—Andrew H. Myers, University of South Carolina Upstate

"The Slow Undoing is a worthy read for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of the systemic impediments to civil rights for African Americans."—South Carolina Libraries

"Lowe's primary goal in this book is the important task of reconstructing these struggles. And on this account, the book makes an important contribution to the historiography of the Black freedom stuggle of the South."—Christopher W. Schmidt, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Journal of Southern History

2021 George C. Rogers Jr. Award Winner

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