3 minute read

From Segregation to Civil Rights

After the U.S. CIVIL WAR the THIRTEENTH, FOURTEENTH, and FIFTEENTH AMENDMENTS to the U.S. Constitution, along with many pieces of CIVIL RIGHTS legislation, were enacted to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves. Nevertheless, African Americans were soon ensnared in a southern political and legal system that limited their political, economic, and social freedoms.

Initially after the war, during the RECON-STRUCTION era (1865–1876), the former Confederate states were placed under federal military control. During this time African Americans were able to register to vote and to be elected to state and local government posts. This period was also marked by white vigilantism, however, in the form of the KU KLUX KLAN (KKK). The KKK used terror to discourage African Americans from voting or from asserting their other constitutional rights.

The presidential election of 1876 resulted in a deadlocked ELECTORAL COLLEGE and allegations of election fraud. A congressional compromise was reached in which Republican RUTHERFORD B. HAYES became president. In exchange, southern Democrats were rewarded with the withdrawal of federal troops and the end of Reconstruction.

During the 1870s the U.S. Supreme Court was called on to decide the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the CIVIL RIGHTS CASES, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835 (1883), the Court struck down the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1875, which had been based on the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that the amendment prohibited only official, state-sponsored discrimination and did not reach discrimination by private parties. By the 1890s African Americans had lost virtually all their civil rights as southern states, emboldened by the Civil Rights cases, passed laws that segregated all public facilities and public transportation on the basis of race. In PLESSY V. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896), the Supreme Court endorsed "separate-but-equal" laws, holding that they did not violate the Constitution.

Beginning in the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought a series of court battles against various aspects of state-sponsored segregation. The NAACP's main focus, however, was the desegregation of public schools. A team of talented attorneys, which included future Supreme Court justice THURGOOD MARSHALL, led the fight. Ultimately, they succeeded in having Plessy struck down. In BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the Supreme Court ordered the end of state-sponsored segregated schools.

Despite these legal victories, most African Americans in the South were not able to vote or to exercise their civil rights. In response, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. started the modern CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT in the 1950s. Instead of lawsuits, he used nonviolent public protests to attract the nation's attention to the conditions under which African Americans were forced to live. King and his followers were jailed for their demonstrations, but by the early 1960s it was clear that legal change must come.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON pushed for the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.), which prohibited racial and other types of discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. The act outlawed both state-sponsored and private segregation in hotels, restaurants, and public transportation. Johnson also introduced the VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1971 et seq.), which ensured protection against discriminatory voting practices. This act changed the South, as African Americans were allowed to register to vote for the first time since Reconstruction.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationHistorical Legal Documents and Landmark Speeches