Segregation in the United States

The end of slavery, while certainly a landmark in the history of civil rights, did not mean equality for the former slaves. At first, the Southern states used the black codes, local laws that limited former slaves' ability to find work and freedom to move off the plantations. In response, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that made African Americans citizens. This was followed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (1868 and 1870, respectively), which reaffirmed that African Americans are citizens, entitled to "equal protection," and have the right to vote.

African Americans soon learned that the Constitution might promise equal protection, but realizing that promise was another matter. The Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment very narrowly, stating that the federal government could not prosecute individuals for discriminatory acts. Lynchings and mob violence were left to the states to handle. Within a generation after the end of Reconstruction (1877), African Americans in the South found themselves deprived of their civil rights.

Jim Crow laws

Jim Crow laws were Southern statutes that effectively segregated people by race. In a group of decisions known as the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that had forbidden racial segregation in public accommodations such as hotels and trains. Under the Jim Crow laws, separate facilities for black and white train and streetcar passengers, separate schools, and separate entrances and reception areas in public buildings were built in the South. Separate restrooms and drinking fountains, as well as special visiting hours for African Americans at museums, became fixtures of Southern life. Because this separation based on race was backed by law, it was called de jure segregation.

Separate but equal doctrine

In 1896, Homer Plessy challenged segregation by riding in a "white only" railroad car. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that such segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities were equal. The court's "separate but equal" doctrine was soon applied to schools as well as theaters, beaches, and sports facilities. However, separate was hardly equal. Black schools received discarded textbooks and lab equipment from white schools, and the buildings themselves were dilapidated. All facilities that were for African Americans to use were inferior.

Until the 1950s, America was a segregated society. Major League Baseball was segregated until 1947; African Americans played in the Negro Leagues. Hollywood played its part, limiting African Americans to roles as domestics or making "all-Negro" films that were shown in segregated movie theaters. The practice of segregation moved beyond the South into other parts of the country, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

African Americans were also denied the right to vote. Southern states set up poll taxes, literacy tests, the grandfather clause, and property qualifications, all of which reduced the number of eligible African-American voters to insignificance outside of the most urban areas.