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Segregation and Desegregation

The Face Of Segregation

The first segregation laws to be passed dealt with separation of the races on trains. A majority of southern states passed laws that designated African American and white seating laws for both trains and railway station waiting rooms by 1910. In time, streetcars, theaters, amusement parks, hospitals, jails, swimming pools, drinking fountains, and schools, were all targeted by state and local segregation laws. The military was also segregated, with African American soldiers usually serving in menial positions. Education was a particular focal point for segregation; it soon became clear that the "separate but equal" clause of Plessy v. Ferguson was not being observed. For example, by 1915 South Carolina was spending 12 times as much per capita to educate white children than African American children. Conditions were somewhat better out of the South. By 1900, 18 states of the North and West had passed laws designed to discourage racial discrimination practices. However, de facto segregation was still the rule rather than the exception throughout the country.

In 1910, approximately 90 percent of the African American population lived in the South and 30 percent of the total population of the South was African American. By and large, the entire African American population in the South was denied basic civil rights. In the first decade of the twentieth century, over 300,000 African Americans fled such oppressive conditions for northern and western states in what has been called the Great Migration. This demographic change has continued throughout the century. However, the demographic changes brought on new tensions between the races which resulted in race riots in 1917 and 1919 in both border and Northern states. Thirty-eight people were killed in the Chicago race riots of 1919 which was instigated when four African Americans attempted to enter a de facto white beach on Lake Michigan.

In response to the discriminatory laws of de facto segregation African Americans began to organize, beginning with the formation of the National Urban League in 1909. The NUL concentrated its resources on helping working class African Americans adjust to new urban environments. The extremely influential National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed shortly thereafter. Founded in 1910, the organization concentrated its resources on the three tenets of education, litigation and legislation. Their first legal success came with the 1915 Supreme Court decision in Guinn v. United States, in which an Oklahoma grandfather clause was stuck down. Then, in Buchanan v. Warley, (1917), the Court ruled that a Kentucky statute forcing residential segregation violated the Constitution. Another NAACP legal victory came in 1919 when the Court upheld the right of African American citizens to serve on juries in State v. Young. The NAACP also called attention to the need for anti-lynching legislation.

However, African American leaders were not of one mind in determining the best strategy with which to combat segregation. Some influential leaders such as Booker T. Washington, felt that the best approach for improving the condition of African Americans was economic advancement. Civil and political justice, he argued, would follow. Toward this end, he founded the Tuskegee Institute, which was designed to provide African Americans with an industrial education that would enable African Americans to find better jobs. This strategy was supported by many whites just as eager to put an end to racial disharmony. Other African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and representatives of the NAACP insisted that the best approach to racial equality was to fight for immediate universal political and civil equality. They saw Washington and his policy of "accommodation" as leading African Americans backward into slavery, pointing out that education was difficult to come by for African Americans in the South. The rampant poverty in the South allowed for only a three-month school year for African Americans who were fortunate enough to go to school. In addition, African American teachers made less than convicts. Although county training schools began to emerge in the South, they merely provided an industrial education which served to keep southern African Americans in a subordinate economic position.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century modest progress was made in the fight against racial discrimination and segregation. Militant white racism, exemplified in organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, reached its peak in the mid-1920s, with membership reaching an all-time high of five million in 1929. However, many states disapproved of the atrocious intimidation tactics employed by the Klan which helped reduce membership to less than 100,000. The number of lynchings dropped from 83 to 7 in 1929. U.S. involvement in world affairs also served as a vehicle for progress in the area of racial discrimination as many African Americans courageously answered the call of military service during World War I, though in segregated regiments.

Although the political and social climate was progressing, the Supreme Court was still reluctant to address the important issues of racial equality. The Great Depression was particularly hard on African Americans who were already in an economically compromising position. Education for African Americans continued to be problematic. In the 1930s, while the average expenditure per student per year in schools was $80, for African Americans it was only $15. Increasingly, in the North, African Americans began to fight segregation in the schools. In Philadelphia, for example, concerted efforts by the Education Equity League and the NAACP resulted in desegregated schools, the admittance of African American teachers in African American and white schools, and placement of an African American on a school board by 1940. The NAACP also established a strategy to tackle Plessy v. Ferguson in the courts, by slowly chipping away at the "separate but equal" doctrine in specific cases. For example, Murray v. Maryland (1936) forced Maryland to desegregate its law schools and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950) addressed graduate school inequalities. Still, the Court did not reverse the position it advanced in Plessy. The NAACP legal defense team continued to look for the case that might reverse that decision and open the floodgates of reform. Meanwhile, America was drawn into another world war in which African Americans again took part despite their unequal treatment at home.

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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