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Segregation and Desegregation

Separate But Equal

De jure segregation, or the legal separation of races--in this case African Americans and whites-- developed in the late nineteenth century. Prior to this, de facto segregation, or the separation of races on the basis of custom, was carried out by the institution of slavery. A series of constitutional amendments helped bring an end to de facto segregation. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the subsequent ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, which outlawed the institution of slavery, signfied the beginning of the end of de facto segregation. The Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments extended fundamental civil rights such as due process and the right to vote to African Americans. However, states intent on segregating the races devised ways to circumvent the Constitution. For example, legal codes were enacted in the South designed to restrict the freedom of African Americans such as prohibiting first-class seating on railway cars, and denying African Americans access to public schools. Although the post-Civil War Reconstruction legislation discouraged much of these types of laws, Southern states took measures to re-institute segregation. The body of laws which was instituted with the intent to legally separate African Americans from whites was known as "Jim Crow Laws."

The federal government responded with what would be a long line of civil rights legislation. The first of such measures was the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1870, which guaranteed equal rights under the law for all people living under U.S. jurisdiction. Included under the acts were the rights to sue and be sued, the rights to own real and personal property, and the rights to testify and present evidence in courts of law. In 1875 Congress was forced to enact legislation when many whites refused to make such public facilities as hotels and railroads available to African Americans. The 1875 Civil Rights Act prohibited such discrimination and provided for the "full and equal enjoyment" of such public establishments. Southern states, however, largely ignored these federal laws, or contested their constitutionality in the courts. Southern segregationists, relying on the Tenth Amendment, claimed that the federal government did not have constitutional authority to tell the states how to run their affairs. In many instances, the Supreme Court sided with the states. In United States v. Reese (1876) and United States v. Cruikshank (1876) the Court limited the federal government's ability to protect the civil rights of African Americans. In these cases the Court declined to uphold an indictment against southerners who prevented qualified African Americans from voting. The decisions limited the power of the federal government to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 found the Civil Rights Act of 1871 unconstitutional because it did not confine statutory provisions to discriminatory practices of the states (i.e. the Civil Rights legislation was too broad). The most influential decision by the Court came in 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson. Here, the Court upheld a Louisiana law which required "separate but equal" railway facilities for African Americans and whites. The Court determined that laws requiring separation of the races do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race and that the notion of "separate but equal" facilities does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The only dissenting voice on the Court was that of Justice John Marshall Harlan, who quite accurately predicted the effect of the ruling: "Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens . . . In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case . . . " Just before the Civil War, in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Justice Taney delivered perhaps the most regrettable opinion ever issued by the Supreme Court. After being enslaved, Dred Scott sued on the grounds that his residency in a territory that banned slavery made him free. Justice Taney not only rejected Scott's argument but went out of his way to suggest that Dred Scott did not even have the right to sue in federal court because, legally, he was not a citizen. He also went on to say that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in any state.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was a landmark decision which sanctioned de jure segregation which precipitated a host of Jim Crow laws restricting the rights of African Americans in all spheres of life from education to voting. The 1898 Supreme Court decision in Williams v. Mississippi essentially approved legal disenfranchisement. African Americans were denied the vote by the use of literacy tests, poll taxes and so-called grandfather clauses which denied suffrage to anyone whose grandfather had been ineligible to vote. It would be another half century before the federal government enacted civil rights laws that deterred legal segregation.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesSegregation and Desegregation - Separate But Equal, The Face Of Segregation, Brown V. Board Of Education, Further Readings