Man Buying Tickets at Black Entrance to Theater

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Man Buying Tickets at Black Entrance to Theater


By: Eudora Welty

Date: 1935

Source: © Eudora Welty/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Eudora Welty (1909–2001) worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration in 1935. She is best known as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. The Jackson, Mississippi-born author won nearly every major writing prize, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for The Optimist's Daughter.


In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Republicans introduced several amendments to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, introduced in 1866 and ratified in 1868, made all native-born persons into American citizens and prohibited the states from denying any citizen equal protection under the law. Southerners strongly opposed the Fourteenth Amendment and attempted to maintain second-class status for African Americans.

By the 1880s, Republicans concerned about civil rights no longer controlled Congress. At the same time, the Supreme Court was becoming increasingly hostile to federal civil rights legislation based on the Fourteenth Amendment. This hostility led the Court to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883. The act, the last piece of Reconstruction civil rights law, proclaimed the equality of all persons before the law and promised equal justice to people of every race, color, or persuasion in public or private accommodations. It was an attempt to prohibit racial segregation of trains, trolleys, theaters, hotels, restaurants, and other places open to the public. The Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment only addressed official, state-sponsored discrimination.

The court decision meant that racial segregation could be imposed by private businesses. The South moved quickly to ensure that African Americans would be unequal before the law. The Black Codes, passed to segregate and control newly freed African Americans, were reinstated. The Court then gave further support to the erosion of black civil rights. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend to require mixing of the races in social situations. The amendment mandated legal equality, not social equality. Accordingly, "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites were permitted.



See primary source image.


In reality, the concept of separate but equal was used to allow legal discrimination against African Americans in all walks of life. Especially in the South, many businesses would refuse to serve African Americans altogether. Those that did, such as the movie theatre in this photo, would almost always separate them from whites and give them access to only the least desirable seats, accommodations, or other services. Public services provided to African Americans, such as schools and public transportation, tended to be of low quality.

Segregation began to come under renewed scrutiny from the Supreme Court in 1938. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada involved a black applicant who was denied admission to the University of Missouri Law School. The state of Missouri, which had no law schools for blacks, attempted to fulfill its separate-but-equal obligations by offering to pay for the black applicant's tuition at a comparable out-of-state school. The Court held that this arrangement violated the applicant's rights guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Since this decision, the Fourteenth Amendment has proved to be one of the most effective tools for social and legal change in the United States. The efforts of civil rights activists to end the state-mandated segregation of public facilities and racial discrimination in all areas of American life were aided immeasurably by the Court's determination the Equal Protection Clause could be read liberally. This change in the Court's thinking led to the development of standards of judicial review which put certain types of legislation under strict scrutiny and spelled out suspect classifications. Ultimately, the concept of equal protection led to the overturning of the "separate but equal" concept in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.



Adams, Francis D., and Barry Sanders. Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African Americans in a White Man's Land. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Freedom and Equality: Discrimination and the Supreme Court, edited by Kermit L. Hall. New York: Garland, 2000.

Wormser, Richard. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.