Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Home Front: The Restrictive Covenant Cases and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement
by Gonda, Jeffrey David, Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 342; 3525281
Abstract (Summary)

In 1948, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a team of its finest attorneys to argue the case of Shelley v. Kraemer before the United States Supreme Court. Representing six African-American families from St. Louis, Detroit, and Washington D.C., the NAACP used Shelley to challenge the spread of urban segregation in post-World War II America. The case attacked the judicial enforceability of discriminatory contracts known as racial restrictive covenants. For nearly sixty years, white homebuilders and property-owners in the United States used these instruments to prohibit homeowners from renting or selling their properties to African Americans and members of other minority groups. To contemporary observers these restrictions presented the single greatest obstacle for black Americans who sought to escape the segregated slums and ghettos of the nation's cities and posed one of the most significant threats to racial progress in the postwar period.

This project traces the arc of Shelley v. Kraemer and its companion cases and argues for their centrality in understanding the development of midcentury black protest. Extensive wartime migration and the housing shortage of the 1940s thrust urban segregation to the forefront of many African Americans' sociopolitical agendas and inspired a wave of legal innovation and political cooperation that greatly advanced the cause of civil rights. Most notably, the restrictive covenant cases fostered unprecedented collaboration between the NAACP and the Department of Justice and marked the first time that the NAACP introduced social science-based arguments against discrimination into America's courtrooms. Shelley functioned as a proving ground for litigation tactics and political alliances that quickly became hallmarks of the Association's legal attacks on the doctrine of "separate but equal."

More than fifty years have elapsed since the last comprehensive historical study of the covenant cases. By restoring these cases to their proper place in the legacy of black freedom struggles, this project joins a blossoming body of scholarship that has begun to broaden historical understandings and representations of the civil rights movement in America. The restrictive covenant cases will play a significant role in this effort, taking these emerging conversations in new directions that will enhance historical perspectives on the issues and tactics that drove black protest during the 1940s. Events surrounding the Shelley cases show that housing access was an urgent concern that attracted the attention and impassioned efforts of the most influential black activists and organizations in the country. This project argues that in the immediate postwar period, the fight against housing discrimination featured just as prominently as the struggles over segregation in education, labor, and public accommodations.

Additionally, this study bridges the gap between policy-oriented, top-down scholarship on the civil rights movement and accounts that tout local grassroots organizing as the driving force of change in postwar race relations. The covenant cases highlight the interplay between local legal activism, national advocacy groups, and federal agencies that spurred early reform efforts. Moreover, by using Shelley as the vehicle to explore the impact of housing desegregation protests, this project helps address recent appeals to "bring the law back" into civil rights movement scholarship. The NAACP's postwar campaign against restrictive covenants highlights the energy, creativity, and collaboration that legal attacks on segregation generated within the early civil rights movement. These efforts can now offer new perspective on the development of civil rights litigation and how black Americans strove for freedom in the wake of World War II.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 73/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, American studies, Black studies, American history, Legal Studies, Social structure
Keywords: Civil rights, Housing, Housing segregation, Legal activism, Restrictive covenants, Segregation, Shelley v. Kraemer
Publication Number: 3525281
ISBN: 9781267574916
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