Racial Desegregation (U.S.)

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Racial Desegregation (U.S.)







The process of desegregation is connected to the evolution of segregation and the simultaneous resistance to segregation by African Americans. It is equally important to see that segregation in some places developed as a middle path between outright exclusion and integration. Thus, for example, in the 1830s Ohio excluded blacks from all public schools, then later allowed them to attend segregated schools, and then later integrated its schools. The same evolution can be seen in the U.S. Army, which went from exclusion, to segregation, to integration.


Starting with the growth of a free black population during the American Revolution, whites sought to separate themselves from blacks. With few public institutions and little legal regulation of personal behavior, most early segregation was based on private decision making. Thus, many churches welcomed blacks and offered to save their souls but required them to sit in separate pews, usually in the back of the church, off to one side, or in a gallery. Most schools were private or only quasi-public, and in northern cities they were usually segregated. At the beginning of the Revolution most of the northern militias were integrated, and blacks fought side by side with whites in the early battles. The former slave Peter Salem fought at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill. Salem Poor, also a former slave, was one of the heroes of Bunker Hill. When George Washington took over the Revolutionary Army in early 1775, he was shocked to see scores of black soldiers in the New England regiments and initially ordered that they be discharged. When unable to accomplish this, he demanded that no new blacks be allowed to enlist.

This was the first formal attempt at racial segregation in the new nation. By the end of the year, however, Washington had changed his mind and welcomed black troops. Both Salem Poor and Peter Salem reenlisted and served throughout the war, as did thousands of other blacks. At the end of the war one of Washington’s favorite units was the First Rhode Island, which was made up of mostly former slaves and free blacks from that state. After the war, however, Congress quickly forgot about the many contributions of the thousands of blacks who fought for American liberty. In the Militia Act of 1792 Congress prohibited blacks from serving in the state militias. This was the new nation’s first statutory requirement of racial exclusion. Shortly after this Congress prohibited blacks from serving as postmasters.

From the early national period to the eve of the Civil War, segregation developed in a variety of ways. In the South churches continued to segregate pews, but most white-dominated churches did not exclude blacks. Some masters took their slaves to church but did not sit with them. Southern free blacks and slaves also created their own religious institutions, particularly in urban settings, but whites often came to watch these services, fearing that these gatherings would lead to slave revolts. Thus, by the time of the Civil War a pattern of segregation in churches was well entrenched. Every southern state prohibited slaves from being educated and most prohibited the education of free blacks as well. No southern state provided public education for blacks and in only a few places were they able to attend private schools. Thus, for example, in 1860, only about 2,800 school-aged blacks, out of a school-age population of about 95,000, were in any school in the South. More than half of these lived in the four slave states that did not join the Confederacy.

Other antebellum southern institutions were not segregated, in the sense that there were separate accommodations for blacks. Whites often traveled with slaves attending to them as personal servants, and thus segregation would have been impractical. Moreover, to the extent that exclusion and segregation developed to support white supremacy, such rules were unnecessary in a society where over 95 percent of all blacks were slaves, and thus already legally and socially subordinated. Free blacks were excluded from most public accommodations, although no laws required this. The antebellum South was a totally closed society, where race was a symbol of enslavement and free blacks lived on the edge of society, with no claims to citizenship or rights beyond the most basic legal protections. Laws requiring or even allowing segregation were unnecessary in such a world.

In the North, free blacks formed their own churches after facing discrimination and exclusion in white churches; although in many places blacks attended the same churches as whites. Before the 1830s most states initially provided no public education for blacks, and then later segregated their public schools by providing separate schools for blacks. Practices varied greatly between states and within states. In the 1830s most of the public schools in New York State’s growing cities were segregated, but within a decade the public schools in Syracuse, Rochester, and Utica were integrated, whereas those in New York City, Albany, and Buffalo were segregated. By the 1840s most of the schools in Massachusetts were integrated, including the Boston Latin School and Boston English, both prestigious high schools; however, the city’s 117 grammar schools were segregated with the exception of the Smith School, a white school open to blacks. Similarly, while the city had 161 primary schools (for children ages four through seven), blacks were allowed to attend only two, including the Belknap Street School, where Sarah Roberts was assigned. In 1849 Benjamin Roberts sued the school board to allow his daughter, Sarah, to attend the school nearest to her house.

In many ways Roberts v. City of Boston (1850) anticipated the Supreme Court case—but not the outcome— in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Both cases were brought against northern schools. Like Linda Brown, who passed by a number of elementary schools for whites to get to her school for blacks only, Sarah Roberts had to pass five elementary schools every day to get to her designated school. Charles Sumner, who would later become a U.S. senator, argued that the segregated school was inherently inferior, even though it had the same books and some other facilities as the schools for white children. He also argued the segregation itself was psychologically damaging to black children.

Lawyers in the Brown case would make similar arguments. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected integrationist arguments. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw framed the question of this case just as the Supreme Court would in 1954: “Conceding, therefore, in the fullest manner, that colored persons, the descendants of Africans, are entitled by law, in this commonwealth, to equal rights, constitutional and political, civil and social, the question then arises, whether the regulation in question, which provides separate schools for colored children, is a violation of any of these rights.” He concluded that under the Massachusetts Constitution the school board was free to assign students in whatever manner it chose, and that segregation was neither against state law nor unconstitutional. This case established the judicially created doctrine of “separate but equal,” with Shaw holding that as long as the schools for blacks has the same facilities as the schools for whites, the city could maintain separate schools. Black activists and white abolitionists in Boston did not cease their struggle for equality, and in 1855 the state legislature prohibited all public schools from segregating blacks.

By the time of the Civil War, segregation in schools across the North varied. In the 1830s Ohio had refused to provide public schools for blacks and also prohibited them from attending public schools for whites. However, blacks were also exempt from paying school taxes. This led to private schools in such places as Cincinnati, but in other parts of the state blacks attended the public schools by paying tuition that was roughly the same as the taxes their parents might otherwise have paid. By the 1850s the legislature had mandated that all communities provide a free public education for blacks, but it allowed districts to do so on either an integrated or a segregated basis.

In 1860 ten times as many black children attended school in the North (about 27,000) as in the South, even though the northern free black population was smaller. Northern black attendance rates were not as high as those for whites, but they were much greater than in the South. For example, in 1860 with a school-age population of more than 22,000, only forty-one black children were enrolled in schools in Virginia, while in Pennsylvania more than 7,000 black children (out of fewer than 20,000) were in school. Some blacks also attended northern colleges that were otherwise overwhelmingly white. In some places in the North, public accommodations (inns, restaurants, theaters, railroad cars, streetcars) were open to blacks on the same basis as whites, but more commonly, private owners segregated these facilities and the states did little to stop them. Almost everywhere in the North, blacks protested these conditions with some success. Some states, such as Massachusetts, banned segregation in railroad cars, and protests in New York City forced streetcar companies to allow patrons to sit anywhere. Most businesses in the North, however, were able to segregate without any interference from the courts or the legislature. On the eve of the Civil War it was possible to find substantial integration and substantial segregation in the same states and even in the same cities across the North.


The Civil War brought vast changes to race relations. From the moment the war began, blacks volunteered for the army to fight the Confederacy. Initially the U.S. Army did not allow blacks to enlist, although the navy did. In late 1862 the Lincoln administration authorized the enlistment of blacks in segregated regiments, with mostly white officers. By the end of the war approximately 180,000 blacks had served in the army and another 20,000 or so in the navy. Initially black soldiers were paid at a lower rate than their white counterparts, but Congress rectified this by 1864. After the war the army did not revert to the exclusionist policy as it had done in the wake of the Revolution. Blacks, however, would remain in separate units and only a token few were allowed to rise above the rank of noncommissioned officer.

A few other racial barriers began to break down during the war. Congress, which had jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, granted charters to streetcar companies that were obligated to seat patrons without regard to race. During the war the state department began to issue passports for blacks, thus rejecting the logic of the Dred Scott decision—that blacks, even if free, could never be considered “citizens” of the United States. President Lincoln met with some black leaders at the White House and invited Frederick Douglass to have tea with him at his summer residence, The Soldiers’ Home. This was a symbolically powerful moment, as the Kentucky-born president of the United States treated a leading African American as a social equal by sitting down with him to share food, drink, and conversation. After his reelection, Lincoln invited Douglass to his inauguration party. When a guard, not knowing who Douglass was, barred his entry, Lincoln personally escorted him into the room.

Immediately after the war a number of southern states, still dominated by legislatures elected during the war, passed laws requiring segregation in public facilities. In 1865 Florida became the first state to require segregation on railroad cars, with other states following close behind. Texas, for example, passed a law requiring a separate railroad car for blacks. However, during Reconstruction these laws were repealed, and some were replaced with laws requiring integration of public facilities. Southern public schools were open to children of all races, but most whites boycotted them. Louisiana passed laws prohibiting segregation on railroad cars and steamships. In 1870 Louisiana allowed interracial marriage, as did Arkansas in 1874. Other southern states dropped their ban on interracial marriage as well during this period. Meanwhile, in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 Congress required integration at the national level of most places of public accommodation. That year Congress also allowed black immigrants to become naturalized citizens. The law was drawn carefully, however, to exclude immigrants from Asia.

After 1877 this brief moment of racial fairness for former slaves began to fade. Southern states began to segregate transportation, schools, and other public facilities. In The Civil Rights Cases (1883) the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1883, paving the way for rampant private discrimination in the South. In Pace v. Alabama, decided the same year, the Court also upheld an Alabama law making it a criminal offense for blacks and whites to marry each other.

Most northern states responded to these decisions by passing their own civil rights acts, banning restaurants, hotels, theaters, streetcars, and the like from discriminating on the basis of race. In 1883, for example, Michigan specifically allowed interracial marriage, and two years later the state passed a sweeping equal accommodations law that did at the state level what the Congress had tried to do nationally in the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Almost every other northern state passed a similar law in the next decade. Many northern states also prohibited school districts from maintaining separate schools for blacks. Courts in many northern states enforced these laws.

By 1900 segregation was not legal in most of the North. In theory schools, hotels, restaurants, theaters, streetcars, and railroad cars were open to blacks on the same basis as whites. By the eve of World War II, however, a decidedly different practice had emerged. Most northern blacks lived in cities and were increasingly ghettoized through real estate practices that were rarely regulated by statutes. Thus, segregation—in fact, de facto segregation—became the norm. In most places schools were not officially segregated, but neighborhood schools led to segregated schools in cities where blacks were concentrated into specific neighborhoods. In smaller towns and rural areas discrimination was often the practice if not the law. Paul Robeson, for example, was denied the right to be valedictorian at his high school in a small town in New Jersey simply because the principal did not want a black speaker at graduation. When he entered Rutgers University in 1915, he was the only black on campus and only the third in the history of the school. As the state university of New Jersey, Rutgers was not officially segregated, but it was effectively so.

Similarly, when future federal judge A. Leon Higginbotham entered Purdue University in Indiana, in 1944, only twelve black civilian students attended this large state university. Higginbotham was allowed to attend classes on an equal basis with whites but was not given dormitory space and was instead forced to live in an unheated attic. The university president told Higginbotham that the law did not mandate integration of the dormitories, only of the classrooms. On the other hand, blacks attended colleges on an equal basis with whites in many urban public universities throughout the North. Higginbotham left Purdue for the integrated, private Antioch College and then Yale Law School. At the time it would have been illegal for him to attend an integrated private college or law school anywhere in the South.

In 1947, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights reported that “New York State, in particular, has an impressive variety of civil rights laws on its statute books” and that “few other states and cities have followed suit, especially in the fair employment practice field.” However, many, perhaps most, privately owned businesses ignored such laws and rarely had to defend their actions in the courts. Blacks reported to the President’s Committee that despite laws that prohibited discrimination, it was “difficult to find a meal or a hotel room in the downtown areas of most northern cities.” Enforcement of such laws was lax and businesses “discouraged [blacks] from patronizing places by letting them wait indefinitely for service, charging them higher prices, giving poor service, and publicly embarrassing them in various ways.” Although illegal, “whites only” signs could be found in some places in the North. Generally, though, such signs were unnecessary, as some businesses simply refused to accommodate or serve blacks.

By the end of World War II the practices of the North were mixed. In smaller cities and towns schools were integrated because neighborhoods were integrated or because there was only one school to attend. In southern Indiana, Illinois, and New Jersey some local districts maintained segregated schools for blacks even in small towns, despite state laws prohibiting such schools. Almost every northern state had civil rights laws prohibiting all sorts of discrimination, but hotels, restaurants, and landlords nevertheless often successfully ignored such laws. Beaches, pools, and parks were officially integrated, but local prejudice led to de facto segregation. However, blacks throughout the North could vote, run for office, and in many places find public-sector jobs.

Urban ghettoization led to de facto segregation but also to political power; by the end of World War II both Chicago and New York had black representatives in the U.S. Congress, and scores of blacks served on city councils and in state legislatures across the North. Blacks had access to public and private higher education. Most state universities were integrated, although a few northern states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, established public institutions that were not officially segregated but nevertheless had student bodies that were almost entirely black. Private-sector employment was mixed. Small employers easily evaded the fair employment practices acts in such states as Michigan and New York. But by the end of World War II in the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest, blacks found relatively high paying jobs in steel mills, auto factories, and with similar large employers. Even in these industries, however, promotions were few and management positions almost always were closed to blacks.

On the West Coast a different kind of segregation emerged in the 1840s as Chinese laborers came to the nation during the California gold rush. They were segregated and often faced incredible violence. The phrase “a Chinaman’s chance” emerged in the nation’lexicon to describe the likelihood of a Chinese gold miner surviving if he was lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to actually find gold. The Chinese faced segregation in schools, were not allowed to testify in cases involving whites, and were prohibited from marrying anyone outside their own race. During the Civil War, California repealed its laws prohibiting blacks from testifying against whites but did not do the same for Chinese. After the war, discrimination against Chinese was so blatant that in at least one case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) the Supreme Court rendered a decision in favor of Chinese laundry owners, who protested a law that required all laundries to be built of brick unless the sheriff gave the owner an exemption. All white owners got this exemption, but not Chinese. In 1882 anti-Chinese sentiment led to the first racially based immigration restriction in U.S. history, the Chinese Exclusion Act.

After 1886 Japanese began to come to the West Coast, where they also faced segregation. At the turn of the century, President Theodore Roosevelt complained that the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens in California threatened international peace. This crisis led to the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” by which Japan agreed to limit the number of immigrants coming to the United States. Until the 1950s Asian immigrants were prohibited even from becoming naturalized citizens. The West Coast states, especially California, continued to segregate Japanese, passing laws to prevent aliens “ineligible for citizenship”— which only applied to Asian immigrants—from owning real estate or obtaining certain licenses. After World War II the Supreme Court would strike down most of the laws, but before then Asians on the West Coast faced segregation. The final chapter of this grim history was the internment during World War II of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were citizens because they had been born in the United States. This was done by the federal government, but with the full support of officials in California, Oregon, and Washington.

During this period Hispanics in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas faced some form of de jure segregation, especially in schools, and a significant amount of informal segregation. In Wysinger v. Crookshank (1890) the California Supreme Court prohibited the segregation of blacks in the state’s public schools, although de facto segregation developed in the early twentieth century. In 1931 the legislature specifically allowed segregation of Asians and Hispanics in the state’s schools. But between 1944 and 1948 state and federal courts in California banned all forms of segregation in the state and legalized interracial marriage. The key case was Mendez v. Westminster (1947), in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal court to strike down racially based segregation in the public schools. This case was not appealed, because shortly after the decision Governor Earl Warren signed the Anderson Bill, prohibiting all school segregation in the state. A year later, in Perez v. Lippold (1948), the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on interracial marriage, making it the first court in the nation to take such a position.


The story in the South was entirely different. Starting with the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the southern states began to segregate every institution in southern society. In the 1870s and 1880s the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that blatantly prohibited blacks from voting or serving as jurors but gave its blessing to segregation. In Hall v. DeCuir (1878) the Court struck down a Louisiana law passed during Reconstruction that prohibited segregation on boats and trains in the state. The Court said this violated the powers of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. In Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway Co. v. Mississippi (1890), however, the Court upheld a Mississippi law that required segregation, even though presumably that law also placed a burden on interstate commerce. Both cases were argued on issues of interstate commerce and did not focus per se on the constitutional rights of blacks. This issue was brought directly before the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court held that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not prevent Louisiana from segregating railroad cars and other public transportation in the state.

This decision opened the floodgates to massive segregation of everything in the South, where 90 percent of all blacks lived in 1900 and where 70 percent still lived in 1950. In 1898 a South Carolina newspaper mocked the growing penchant for southerners to segregate all facilities, noting:

if there must be Jim Crow cars on the railroads, there should be Jim Crow cars on the street railways. Also on all passenger boats… . If there are to be Jim Crow cars, moreover, there should be Jim Crow waiting saloons at all stations, and Jim Crow eating houses… . There should be Jim Crow sections of the jury box, and a separate Jim Crow dock and witness stand in every court—and a Jim Crow Bible for the colored witnesses to kiss. It would be advisable also to have a Jim Crow section in county auditors’ and treasurers’ offices for the accommodation of colored taxpayers. The two races are dreadfully mixed in these offices for weeks.

However, as the historian C. Vann Woodward noted in his classic book The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1974 [1955]), within a few years, except for the “Jim Crow witness stand, all the improbable applications of the principle suggested by the editor in derision had been put into practice—down to and including the Jim Crow Bible” (p. 68).

By 1945 virtually every facet of life in the South was segregated. Southern blacks faced discrimination at every turn in their lives. If born in a hospital, southern blacks entered the world in a separate hospital; they would be buried in segregated cemeteries. As the President’s Committee noted, in the South “it is generally illegal for Negroes to attend the same schools as whites; attend theaters patronized by whites; visit parks where whites relax; eat, sleep, or meet in hotels, restaurants, or public halls frequented by whites.” Virtually all public and private educational institutions in the South, from nursery school to college, were segregated. The only exceptions were a few small private historically black colleges that occasionally had a white student or two. At the beginning of the century, Kentucky’s Berea College was integrated. In 1904, to stop this breach of southern racial etiquette, Kentucky passed legislation banning private integration, and Berea sued, attempting to remain integrated in the face of laws mandating segregation. In Berea College v. Kentucky (1908) the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s law mandating that private colleges be segregated, giving a green light to legally mandated segregation everywhere in the South, even where parties wanted to be integrated.

Most southern states ignored the education of their black citizens as much as they could. Louisiana, for example, created some twenty “trade schools” between 1934 and 1949 for whites but did not provide any trade schools for blacks. At the primary and secondary levels the disparity in public expenditures guaranteed that blacks would have inferior educational facilities. Almost without exception, white principals, supervisors, and teachers were paid more than blacks. Classes for blacks had more children than classes for whites, schools for blacks were open fewer days, and the facilities were vastly inferior. The situation in Clarendon County, South Carolina, illustrates the reality of segregated education. In 1949, the county spent $179 per pupil for white children and $43 per pupil for black children. The county had sixty-one school buildings for its 6,531 black students, which were worth $194,575. The 2,375 white students went to twelve different schools, worth $673,850.

Segregation profoundly affected criminal justice in the South. By the end of World War II a few southern cities had at least a few black police officers, but most southern blacks still lived in rural areas and small towns, where policing was segregated and often oppressive. Police brutality toward blacks was the norm, and only the most egregious cases ever reached the federal courts where some relief might be found. If arrested, blacks went to segregated jails and, when convicted, to segregated prisons. In Florida, for example, it was illegal for any sheriff or other law enforcement officer to handcuff or chain blacks and whites together, whereas in Georgia black and white prisoners were to be kept separate “as far as practicable.” Segregated facilities meant that black prisoners would face worse conditions than their white counterparts. No matter how bad jail and prison conditions were for whites, they would always be worse for blacks. Furthermore, a convict leasing system gave county and state officials an incentive to prosecute vigorously all black lawbreakers because convicts were laborers who could be rented out to various southern farms and businesses. In court, blacks were invariably represented by white attorneys, if they had representation at all. They faced white judges and all-white juries. In the Deep South, prison often meant laboring on a chain gang or in a rural work camp.

Virtually all other facilities were equally segregated. Southern states segregated homes for the aged, orphanages, and homes or institutions for juvenile delinquents. Industrial schools were segregated where they existed. Louisiana had three industrial schools: one each for young white males, white females, and black males. Black female youthful offenders were not offered the option of learning a skill or trade in preparation for their rehabilitation. In most southern states, African Americans with a hearing problem, a mental illness, or tuberculosis went to special institutions for blacks only. Ironically, state schools for the blind were segregated in the South, even though, presumably, most of the students could not actually see each other. While all these institutions were in theory “separate but equal,” in practice they were never equal. No matter how bad conditions might be for whites, they were invariably worse for blacks.

As the South became increasingly industrialized after World War II, segregation helped keep blacks economically marginalized. South Carolina provided $100 fines and up to thirty days’ imprisonment at hard labor for textile manufacturers or their officials who failed to follow elaborate rules for racial separations. The law set out in great detail that no company engaged in textile or cotton manufacturing—the most important industry in the state—could allow members of

different races to labor and work together within the same room, or to use the same doors of entrance and exit at the same time, or to use and occupy the same pay ticket windows or doors for paying off its operatives and laborers at the same time, or to use the same stairway and windows at the same time, or to use at any time the same lavatories, toilets, drinking water buckets, pails, cups, dippers or glasses.

Other states had similar rules. In Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, mines were required to have both separate shower facilities and clothing lockers for workers when they emerged from the ground. These laws did more than just humiliate blacks and remind them of their inferior legal status: The laws also prevented them from advancing in their jobs, or even getting jobs. Separate facilities for blacks meant that factory owners would have to invest more money in their mills, mines, and factories. Where possible, it made greater economic sense simply to hire only whites, leaving blacks outside the growing industrial job market.

Everywhere in the South, public accommodations were segregated by law—separate, but almost never actually equal. The South required that there be separate drinking fountains, restrooms, motels, hotels, elevators, bars, restaurants, and lunch counters for blacks. Trains had separate cars for blacks, and buses reserved the last few rows for blacks, always keeping them, symbolically, at the back of the bus. Taxis served whites or blacks, not both. Waiting rooms at bus stations, train stations, and airports were separate as well. At theaters, blacks sat in separate sections at the back or in the balcony. Practice on these issues always varied. While many states mandated separate waiting rooms at train and bus stations, Florida found yet one more way to segregate, separate, and humiliate blacks, by requiring that railroads also provide separate ticket windows for black travelers.

Beyond public accommodations, schools, and the workplace, everything else was segregated. Louisiana required separate ticket windows and entrances at circuses and tent shows. The law required that these ticket offices be at least twenty-five feet apart. Southern states banned interracial meetings of fraternal orders, whereas cities and states followed Birmingham’s segregation of “any room, hall, theatre, picture house, auditorium, yard, court, ball park, public park, or other indoor or outdoor place.” Mobile, Alabama had a 10:00 p.m. curfew for blacks. Florida stored textbooks from black and white schools in different buildings, and New Orleans segregated its red light district. Texas specifically prohibited interracial boxing, most cities and towns segregated seating at baseball fields. Local ordinances or customs made it illegal or unlikely that blacks and whites would compete against each other in sporting events, but some states made certain this would not happen. Georgia specifically segregated billiard rooms and poolrooms. South Carolina and Oklahoma segregated public parks and playgrounds. In Louisiana, it was illegal for blacks and whites to reside in the same dwelling, and the existence of “separate entrances or partitions” would not be a defense to a charge under this law. Oklahoma provided for “segregation of the white and colored races as to the exercises of rights of fishing, boating, and bathing” as well as “to the exercise of recreational rights” at parks, playgrounds, and pools. The state required “telephone companies… to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons.”

Even the sacred was not protected from the need of southern whites to separate themselves from blacks: Tennessee required that houses of worship be segregated. Texas and North Carolina segregated their public libraries by statute, whereas other states did not, presumably because they did not imagine blacks using public libraries. Nevertheless, when blacks tried to use them, they were either refused access or forced into segregated facilities. Georgia never seemed to tire of finding things to segregate, and, thus, in its 1937–1938 legislative session, the state provided that the names of white and black taxpayers be made out separately on the tax digest. Beyond the statutes, there were customs and extralegal forms of segregation. Woodward was unable to find a statute requiring separate Bibles in courtrooms, but everywhere that was the practice. As Woodward noted, writing in 1955:

It is well to admit, and even to emphasize, that laws are not an adequate index of the extent and prevalence of segregation and discriminatory practices in the South. The practices often anticipated and sometimes exceeded the law. It may be confidently assumed—and it could be verified by present observation—that there is more Jim Crowism practiced in the South than there are Jim Crow laws on the books.

Thus, banks in the South refused to give loans to blacks, even after World War II when housing loans for black veterans were guaranteed by the GI Bill. Southern blacks could usually shop at the same department stores as whites, but they had to take separate elevators (usually the freight elevators) to the different floors. They might buy the same clothing as whites but were usually not allowed to try on the clothing before purchasing it.

What the historian Woodward described for the turn-of-the-century and beyond, the economist Gunnar Myrdal observed in the 1940s. His classic study of American race relations, An American Dilemma (1944), detailed the existence of an elaborate system of segregation throughout the American South, as well as less pervasive and systematic, but equally pernicious, forms of discrimination in the North. Myrdal noted:

Every Southern state and most Border states have structures of state laws and municipal regulations which prohibit Negroes from using the same schools, libraries, parks, playgrounds, railroad cars, railroad stations, sections of streetcars and buses, hotels, restaurants and other facilities as do the whites. In the South there are, in addition, a number of sanctions other than the law for enforcing institutional segregation as well as etiquette. Officials frequently take it upon themselves to force Negroes into certain action when they have no authority to do so. (p. 628)

Even before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court had upheld numerous southern regulations of race while striking down attempts by Congress and the southern states to create a more racially equal society. After Plessy the southern states segregated every private and public institution they could. Under President Woodrow Wilson—the first southerner elected president since the Civil War—almost all facilities in Washington, D.C., were segregated, and blacks were forced out of many civil service jobs. The army remained segregated, and blacks were limited to kitchen work and similar “service jobs” in the navy and totally excluded from the marines. When World War I began, the army forced into retirement its most senior black officer, Colonel Charles Young, because otherwise Young would have been in the position of commanding white soldiers and junior officers.

In 1909 black and white opponents of segregation formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which would become the nation’largest civil rights organization. The NAACP organized chapters throughout the nation, although in the South member identities had to be kept secret in many places. The NAACP focused much of its energy on fighting segregation and racism through litigation, winning its first case in 1915 when the Court, in Guinn v. United States, struck down Oklahoma’s grandfather clause that effectively disfranchised blacks in the state. In Buchanan v. Warley (1917) the NAACP won again when the Court struck down a Kentucky law that prohibited the sale of real estate to members of one race or the other, on the grounds that this would unduly restrict private property. In Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), however, the Court upheld the right of private parties to sign restrictive covenants, which prevented white landowners from selling their property to blacks. The Court maintained this public/private distinction in other ways, ruling, for example, that the state of Texas could not prohibit blacks from voting in primary elections, but if the political parties ran the primaries as private organizations, the parties themselves could exclude black voters. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) the Court ordered the integration of the University of Missouri School of Law, but only because the state had not provided a similar school for blacks.

On the eve of World War II states were free to establish “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites, such as schools and colleges, and require “separate but equal” seating on public transportation and other areas of public life. Private enterprises were free to segregate without any laws. Most southern states also required that private enterprises segregate the races, or if that was not possible, be open to only one race. Similarly, the Court struck down laws that restricted the vote to whites but did not interfere with literacy tests, poll taxes, or the privatization of primary elections, which disfranchised most southern blacks and simultaneously kept them off juries. In 1940 most blacks—about 70 percent—lived in the South, where segregation was a way of life, discrimination an everyday fact, and economic opportunity severely limited. The North offered better jobs, housing, educational opportunity, and even some political power, but not full equality.


The New Deal and World War II undermined the South’s system of segregation in a number of ways. New Deal programs were often segregated, but they nevertheless provided some opportunities for blacks in the South. The Roosevelt Court also began to chip away at segregation, starting with the Gaines case in 1938. In Mitchell v. United States, decided in the spring of 1941, the Court held that state laws requiring segregation on interstate railroads violated the commerce clause and that only the Interstate Commerce Commission could authorize such segregation. In Morgan v. Virginia (1946) the Court applied the logic of this case to interstate bus transportation. Significantly, the opinion was written by a southern justice, Stanley Reed of Kentucky. Neither case was a “civil rights case” per se, since the Court used the commerce clause to overturn the state laws, but both cases clearly indicated that segregation was no longer constitutionally sacrosanct. While both cases were victories in the Court, buses and trains mostly remained segregated in the South.

In between these two cases, the United States fought World War II. During the war millions of northerners saw segregation for the first time, as they were stationed in military bases all over the South. Even northerners who were not sympathetic to civil rights were shocked by seeing blacks sent to the back of a bus or not even allowed on a bus. Segregation in the North was residential, de facto, and often not much in evidence. In the South it was bold, brutal, and evident everywhere one turned. Segregation in the army was also surprising to many men and women who simply never imagined that fellow soldiers would be separated on the basis of race. The ideology of the war was even more damaging to segregation. Nazism was the logical conclusion of racism. The war itself was a statement against racism. Moreover, for the first time in American history the United States was allied with nonwhites—the Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans—in the war against Japan. Surely there was racism in the antiwar propaganda against the Japanese, but at the same time American propaganda extolled the virtues of the nation’nonwhite allies. After the war a significant number of GIs came home with Japanese wives, and after 1949, Korean wives. These returning veterans found that in about twenty states—almost all of them in the South—their marriages were void and it was illegal for them even to live with their nonwhite wives.

Returning black veterans were particularly incensed by the segregation that greeted them after risking their lives for American democracy. Using the GI Bill, they gained education and bought houses and stood up to the wall of segregation that awaited them. More blacks tried to vote, although with mixed results. Other blacks, such as Irene Morgan, who had been arrested for not moving to the back of a bus in Virginia, were more aggressive about asserting their rights.

The NAACP, which had rallied against segregation on the margins since the 1920s, fought for equality in housing, voting, and interstate transportation. In the 1930s the organization began to plan for an assault on segregated education, reasoning that without education blacks could never be equal in the workplace or any other part of society. The attack first began by testing the meaning of the “equal” provision of the “separate-but-equal doctrine” that had allowed segregation since the 1890s. Suits in Missouri and Texas forced the integration of graduate and professional schools by arguing that such separate schools could never be equal. In Sweat v. Painter (1950) the Supreme Court accepted this argument and forced the integration of the University of Texas Law School. This set the stage for the assault on segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Other events also helped prepare for Brown. The most important may have been the decision of Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thereby breaking the color line in baseball. In 1947 Robinson became the first black to play in the major leagues since the 1890s. Other teams quickly followed suit, and soon black stars became common in both leagues and essential to the success of most teams. Teams that had not won the World Series in decades (or ever)—the Cleveland Indians, New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Milwaukee Braves—won with black stars. By the mid-1950s black players were common, and as television invaded American homes, the whole nation became used to seeing integrated teams winning ball games. In an eleven-year period (from 1949 to 1959) nine of eleven most valuable players in the National League were black, as were most of the rookies of the year in that league.

While baseball made integration seem possible, the cold war and the Korean War made it necessary. As the United States competed with the Soviet Union for international prestige, segregation became increasingly embarrassing. Thus, in 1948 President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military, ending nearly a century of separate units for blacks. Long an opponent of segregation in his home state of Missouri, Truman also saw that justice dovetailed with both good foreign policy and good politics. Segregation continued in all the services for a few more years, but by the end of the Korean War the military was no longer segregated, although the officer corps in all branches was overwhelmingly white. In 1948 the Democratic Party placed a strong civil rights plank in its platform, which led to a walkout by “Dixiecrats” led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond contended for the presidency that year as a segregationist, but his poor showing, and his failure to derail Truman, could be seen as an indication that it was politically safe to challenge segregation. Thus, when the Brown case finally made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Eisenhower administration supported desegregation as a matter of foreign policy necessity, but with knowledge that it was politically acceptable to do so.

In 1952 the Supreme Court heard four cases consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education. The Court did not decide the case that year but ordered reargument for the following year. In the interim, California governor Earl Warren, who had signed the law banning segregation in that state, became chief justice. Warren fashioned a unanimous Court to support an end to segregation in the public schools but strategically held the decision until the end of the term in May 1954, when most public schools were no longer in session for the year. The key issue was whether segregation in public schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court found that it did. As Chief Justice Earl Warren put it in his opinion: “We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?” In other words, could separate schools ever be equal. The Court held they could not be equal. Warren wrote:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

This unanimous decision was narrowly limited to schools. It nevertheless signaled a revolution in American society. For the first time since Reconstruction a branch of government—the Supreme Court—had taken a firm stand against racial inequality and segregation. Southerners responded with grim opposition. In 1956 all but three southern members of the Senate and seventy-seven southern House members signed a “Southern Manifesto” denouncing the decision and integration. The nonsigning senators were three men with national ambitions: Lyndon Johnson of Texas and Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee. Across the South defiant school administrators warned that they would never submit to integration. A few counties in Virginia closed their schools rather than integrate. Schools developed “freedom of choice” programs to allow children to voluntarily choose which schools they would attend, knowing that whites would choose the former white schools and most blacks would be too intimidated to attend them. In 1957 President Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a federal court order requiring the integration of Central High School. Armed airborne troops, with bayonets in place, guarded nine children who entered the previously all-white high school. Federal troops and U.S. marshals would later be used to end segregation in state universities in Mississippi and Alabama.

While Brown was directed only at schools, the logic of the decision affected everything else in the South. Scores of federal court decisions struck down one form of segregation after another in the South. Meanwhile, a mass movement spread across the South, as blacks and white allies (often from the North) organized boycotts and demonstrations. In December 1955 Rosa Parks, a longtime member of the NAACP, was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This sparked a 381-day boycott of the buses by blacks. The boycott thrust a young black preacher, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., into the national limelight. After the boycott, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which became the most important force for grassroots organizing.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the NAACP challenged bus segregation in the courts and in November 1956, in Gayle v. Browder, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision declaring the bus segregation unconstitutional. In late December the Court rejected final appeals from Alabama, and on December 20 the order to desegregate the buses arrived in Montgomery. A day later the boycott ended as blacks were able to sit wherever they wanted on the public buses. This was, in a formal sense, the reversal of Plessy v. Ferguson. It also meant that most state laws requiring or mandating segregation were unconstitutional. It would take another decade of demonstrations, court decisions, and interventions by the U.S. government to finally end all state-sponsored segregation in the South. The southern segregationists were, in the end, fighting a losing battle as long as the Supreme Court remained firm in its position that the states could not discriminate.

The Court’s decisions, however, applied only to state laws requiring segregation. Private businesses were still free to discriminate. In February 1960 four students from the historically black North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a lunch counter in a Woolworth’s to order coffee. When they were refused service, they in turn refused to leave. This was not the first “sit-in” to challenge segregation, but it gained national publicity. Within days hundreds of black students, joined by some whites, were demanding service at downtown stores and lunch counters. In the next two months there were more than fifty sit-ins in nine southern states. For national chains such as Woolworth’the sit-ins were an embarrassment and a threat to business outside the South, as its stores were picketed throughout the North. The sit-ins and demonstrations in Greensboro continued until July, when Woolworth’s finally agreed to serve blacks. Because the southern states could no longer require segregation, sit-ins were successful where they focused on national stores and where the public mood led to lethal or near-lethal violence. In big cities of the

upper and mid-South this tactic worked to force an end to segregation.

The Greensboro sit-in stimulated some cities—such as Atlanta and Nashville—to quietly desegregate public space. This led activists to organize “sit-ins” on the road in the spring of 1961. Hundreds of mostly students from the North and the upper South boarded interstate buses, with blacks and whites sitting next to each other. The Freedom Riders, as they were called, integrated lunch counters, rest rooms, and other facilities as their buses headed south. The buses passed peacefully through the upper South, but mobs began to attack the buses once they reached South Carolina. On May 14, 1961—Mother’s Day—a mob in Anniston, Alabama, set a bus on fire and blocked the doors to prevent the Freedom Riders from escaping. The riders were able to leave the bus only when it exploded. But as they exited the bus they were brutally beaten, and only the presence of an armed undercover agent prevent a lynching. The federal government arranged for the National Guard to escort the buses to Jackson, Mississippi, where all the Freedom Riders were peacefully arrested. In November 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the integration of all interstate buses and trains in the nation.

The firebombing of the bus in Alabama helped make that state the symbol of southern white resistance to change. In May 1963 Birmingham’s Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs to suppress peaceful marches sponsored by the SCLC. These attacks—showing young children being lifted off the ground by the high-pressure fire hoses—were broadcast on national news shows, to the shock of most northerners. In June, Governor George C. Wallace personally blocked the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama. That summer, civil rights leaders from around the nation organized their famous March on Washington to protest segregation. The highlight of the march turned out to be King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” which in tone and substance was more sermon than speech, more conciliatory than angry. Seen by millions on television and repeated on news programs, the speech became a symbol of the civil rights movement and contrasted the movement’s call for peaceful change and legal equality with the violence of police officials.

Before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy submitted a major civil rights bill to Congress, where it languished. In the wake of his assassination Lyndon Johnson used his enormous power and longtime Washington knowledge and skills to force Congress to vote on the law. While Congress debated the bill, events in Mississippi riveted the nation and underscored the need for federal protection for civil rights. In June 1964 three young men aged twenty to twenty-four, James Chaney, a black from Meridian, Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both from New York, were arrested on the pretext of a traffic violation, briefly jailed, then released. They were in Mississippi trying to help blacks register to vote. After their release they were captured and murdered by local members of the Ku Klux Klan (some of whom were also in the sheriff’s department). Their burned car was found immediately, but their bodies were not discovered until August. Events like this pushed Congress to act on the civil rights legislation. Once the Senate broke a filibuster of southern senators, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 easily passed both houses and was signed into law on July 2, 1964. The law prohibited segregation in restaurants, hotels, and all other forms of public accommodation. Litigation was necessary to secure compliance. In Katzenbach v. McClung (1964) the Court upheld the law, ruling that a barbecue restaurant (owned by Ollie McClung) many blocks from an interstate highway was still sufficiently involved in interstate commerce to fall under the law. Lester Maddox sold his Atlanta restaurant rather than integrate and used his status as a “victim” of the federal government to successfully run for governor of the state. Despite laws, equality remained elusive. Civil rights marches—and violence by the police and community— continued until the late 1960s, as blacks still struggled for equality and economic opportunity.


The movement for integration had mixed success. A half century after the Brown decision most blacks in the nation attended majority black schools and most whites attended school with very few blacks. Colleges and universities became fully integrated, but black enrollment was slight as huge numbers of blacks lacked the financial means to go beyond high school and blacks in inner-city and rural southern schools continued to receive substandard educations. On the fiftieth anniversary of Brown many scholars declared it a failure.

On the other hand, legal segregation is an artifact of history. Many blacks have successfully entered previously segregated schools and graduated from universities and colleges across the nation. A few blacks have reached the highest levels of the corporate world, such as Richard Parsons, the president of the media giant Time-Warner. Blacks have served in presidential cabinets and on the Supreme Court. When President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, his strongest advocate in the Senate was the old Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Throughout the hearings southern senators praised the nominee, never once commenting on the fact that he had a white wife and that thirty years earlier it would have been a felony for them to live together in Virginia. The emergence of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate for the 2008 presidency illustrates the enormous change in race relations in the nation.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, residential patterns remain segregated, but at the day-to-day level the nation is integrated as blacks and whites work together, ride next to each other on buses and trains, and share meals at restaurants. Blacks still face discrimination in jobs, and there are persistent attempts in the Deep South to prevent blacks from voting and to prevent the creation of districts that will lead to black elected officials. Nevertheless, blacks have significant political power in the South, serving in Congress, as mayors, and in the case of Douglas Wilder, as the governor of Virginia. In the North, blacks have held all possible public offices, including terms as mayor in the three largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago), even though none had a black voting majority. In Birmingham, Alabama, Ollie’s Bar-B-Q has moved to a bigger space, where blacks and whites serve food to black and white patrons.

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education; NAACP; NAACP: Legal Actions, 1935-1955; Occupational Segregation; Plessy v. Ferguson.


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Dalfiume, Richard M. 1969. Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939–1953. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Finkelman, Paul. 2004. “The Radicalism of Brown.” University of Pittsburgh Law Review 66: 35–56.

_____. 2005. “Civil Rights in Historical Context: In Defense of Brown.” Harvard Law Review 118: 973–1029.

Klarman, Michael. 2004. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Murray, Pauli. 1997 (1951). States’ Laws on Race and Color. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Raffel, Jeffrey A. 1998. Historical Dictionary of School Segregation and Desegregation: The American Experience. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Smith, J. Clay. 1993. Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Taylor, Nikki. 2005. Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802–1868. Athens: Ohio University Press.

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Paul Finkelman

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