Black History Month

In the Courts

In the Courts

Courtroom battles played a significant role in the civil rights movement. For many years, civil rights leaders waged hard-fought and carefully planned legal battles to overturn legal segregation and achieve equality under the law.


Justice John Marshall Harlan cast the sole dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Fifty-eight years later, his grandson and namesake, John Marshall Harlan II, also a Supreme Court justice, was on the court that overruled Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education. (Wikimedia Commons)

As originally written, the U.S. Constitution did little to protect the rights of African Americans. Following the Civil War, however, three amendments were added to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States. It also banned states from limiting citizens’ rights, depriving them of due process of law, or denying “any person ... the equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting. These amendments offered promises that African Americans would finally achieve equal treatment under the law.

In the latter 19th century, Southern states started adopting “Jim Crow” laws, which established different rules for black and white people. These laws ordered strict racial segregation in all public areas, including hospitals, restaurants, hotels, trains and buses, playgrounds, and even cemeteries. Signs marked “white” and “colored” dominated the South, ensuring that African Americans would be treated as second-class citizens.

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1892, some Republicans in New Orleans decided to challenge Jim Crow laws with a test case. They enlisted Homer Plessy, a light-skinned African American, to board a railroad train bound for Covington, Louisiana. Refusing to sit in the “colored only” section, Plessy instead sat in the section reserved for whites. Arrested and convicted for this act of defiance, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. By an 8–1 vote in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court rejected Plessy’s arguments that the Louisiana Jim Crow law violated his constitutional rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments.

Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Brown held that this law had nothing to do with slavery and therefore it did not violate the 13th Amendment. He also ruled that the14th Amendment was not intended to enforce the social equality of the races in America. He maintained that laws requiring the separation of the races implied no inferiority of either race. They were, he argued, merely passed to protect the common good, not to annoy or oppress anyone. Brown stated that if black people regarded such laws as a badge of inferiority, that was merely their interpretation. He ruled that segregated facilities in public transportation and other areas of life, including education, were constitutionally permissible, as long such facilities were equal. This case created the “separate but equal” doctrine, which lasted until 1954.

The sole dissenter, Justice John Harlan, blasted the decision. He predicted that it would “prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case,” an infamous pro-slavery decision made before the Civil War. He explained:
The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens.

Harlan stated that Jim Crow laws violated both the 13th and 14th amendments. The 13th Amendment, he argued, barred any “badge of servitude.” The 14th Amendment, he said, made it clear that the “Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Most 20th century historians and legal experts have sided with Harlan. They rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine as deceptive and fraudulent. Public schools and other facilities for African Americans were never equal and were usually extremely inferior.
The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, however, gave segregation a solid legal foundation. No major challenge was mounted against it for many years. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading civil rights organization, concentrated on other battles, such as campaigning against lynching and trying to ensure fair trials for criminal defendants.

In the 1930s, however, the NAACP began challenging legal segregation. Led initially by Charles Houston and later by Thurgood Marshall, NAACP attorneys started the legal battle by focusing on graduate and professional school education. They believed that winning legal battles for integration at this level would be easiest and would create the legal basis for a broader attack on racial segregation at all levels. The efforts of the NAACP represent one of the greatest legal strategies in American history. Many of these courageous lawyers risked their personal safety when they traveled through the South, often meeting hostility from police and other whites.

Graduate School Desegregation Cases

Their initial efforts brought significant legal success. Known generally as the “graduate school desegregation cases,” these early victories broke down the myth of “separate but equal” facilities for advanced African-American students. In 1936, a federal appeals court ordered the University of Maryland to admit to its law school a black student it had rejected due to his race. The state had no separate facility for blacks. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the University of Missouri Law School to admit a black student it had excluded. The state had no separate law school for blacks, but had offered to send the student to an out-of-state school for blacks. The court ruled that this offer did not “remove the discrimination,” which violated the 14th Amendment.

The Second World War put a momentary stop on the graduate school cases. But following the war came its two most significant victories. The first involved a black law student, Herman Sweatt, who was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School because of his race. Responding to Sweatt’s lawsuit, the state of Texas built a separate law school in Austin for black students. It consisted of three small basement rooms in an office building not far from both the state capitol and the whites-only law school of the University of Texas.
After five years of litigation, Sweatt attained his legal victory. In 1950 in Sweatt v. Painter, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered his admission to the University of Texas. It rejected the state’s argument that the newly established law school for blacks was even remotely equal to the facilities for white law students.

In the second case, a federal court had ordered the University of Oklahoma to admit a black graduate student. The university had admitted the student, but roped him off from other students, reserving a special section for him in classes, at the library, and in the cafeteria. In 1950 in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered the school to end this segregation. The court stated that under the 14th Amendment the student “must receive the same treatment ... as students of other races.”

During the 1940s, NAACP lawyers had achieved other significant victories. In Morgan v. Virginia, the Supreme Court struck down segregation on interstate transportation because it impeded interstate commerce. In Smith v. Allwright the court ruled that the Southern practice of holding whites-only primary elections violated the 15th Amendment.

In 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer, the court struck down racial restrictive covenants. Common in many parts of the country, these were agreements, often recorded in deeds, that an owner would not sell the land to specified minorities.


A year after the Brown decision, the Supreme Court issued another decision on how Brown should be implemented. (Wikimedia Commons)

Brown v. Board of Education

By the 1950s, the rigid legal doctrine supporting segregation had finally been weakened. Thurgood Marshall was preparing for the final legal assault on school segregation, but he faced major opposition even from many committed to full racial equality. They thought that the time was not ripe for such drastic social and legal change. They feared that the Supreme Court would reject a case seeking total racial integration throughout American public education. Such a defeat, they argued, would result in further frustration and continued racial inequality and lack of opportunity.

Determined to succeed, Marshall pushed ahead. NAACP lawyers worked furiously to present the best possible case. In 1952, Marshall presented the legal argument that resulted in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its dramatic unanimous decision: Segregation of children in America’s public schools, when authorized or required by state law, violated the U.S. Constitution, specifically the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. Chief Justice Earl Warren relied on scientific evidence in concluding that segregated schools promoted feelings of inferiority in black children. Because this reduced their motivation to learn, Warren and his fellow justices determined that segregated educational facilities were inherently unequal.
The Brown decision was one of the most important in the 20th century. More than any other case, it expanded the legal rights of African Americans. For the first time, many blacks saw that American justice system might actually help them achieve justice and equality. Robert Williams, a Marine Corps veteran and a civil rights leader, spoke for many: “On this momentous night of May 17, 1954, I felt that at last the government was willing to assert itself on behalf of first-class citizenship, even for Negroes. I experienced a sense of loyalty that I had never felt before.”
Following the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, the court continued to strike down legal segregation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In a series of short opinions, the court outlawed segregation in buses, parks, public golf courses, and other places. In each case, the court cited the Brown opinion. It upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, the court ruled that states could no longer outlaw people of different races from marrying each other. In that ruling, Chief Justice Warren noted that the Virginia statute, which the court declared invalid, did nothing more than endorse the doctrine of white supremacy. By the end of the 1960s, the court had ended all aspects of legal segregation.

The Supreme Court has continued to deal with issues related to race, such as affirmative action and discrimination in the criminal justice system. The court has developed a three-tiered system to deal with equal protection cases under the 14th Amendment.

In most circumstances, when a legislature passes a law that classifies people into groups, the law must only pass a simple test: Is the law reasonably related to a legitimate state purpose? (This is the “rational basis” test — the lowest level of scrutiny.) If the law is, then it is valid under the 14th Amendment. For example, a law that bans the sale of alcohol to minors serves a legitimate state interest of protecting the welfare of young people.

But if a law classifies people by gender, the court will examine it more closely. This is the second tier — sometimes known as “intermediate scrutiny.” The test for intermediate scrutiny is more demanding: Is the law substantially related to the achievement of an important government purpose?

If, however, the law classifies people by race or ethnicity, it is highly suspect and must be examined extremely closely. In the court’s terms, such a law merits “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of scrutiny. To survive strict scrutiny, a law must pass this test: Is the law necessary to achieve a “compelling state interest”? A compelling state interest is one that is most important and vital to society. Few laws can pass this test.

Although today’s court is more conservative than the Warren Court of the 1950s and ‘60s, there is no possibility of a return to legal segregation. The major expansion of legal rights that Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and many other civil rights lawyers successfully fought for during the 1940s and 1950s will remain intact.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What was the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson? Why was it important?
  2. Why do you think NAACP attorneys chose graduate schools as their first line of attack on the doctrine of separate but equal?
  3. Why do you think the court scrutinizes most closely classifications based on race and ethnicity? Do you think these classifications deserve more attention than others? Explain.

For Further Reading

Brook, Thomas. Plessy v. Ferguson. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1996.

Medley, Keith Walden. We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing. 2003.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage Books. 2004.

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Social Protests

Social Protests

The modern civil rights movement grew out of a long history of social protest. In the South, any protest risked violent retaliation. Even so, between 1900 and 1950, community leaders in many Southern cities protested segregation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading civil rights organization of this era, battled racism by lobbying for federal anti-lynching legislation and challenging segregation laws in court.


Rosa Parks’ act of defiance helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Behind Parks is the Reverent Martin Luther King Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)

Following World War II, a great push to end segregation began. The NAACP grew from 50,000 to half a million members. The walls of segregation that existed outside the South started crumbling. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and soon black athletes participated in all professional sports. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces.

The greatest victory occurred in 1954. In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional separate schools for blacks and whites. This deeply shocked many Southern whites. White Citizens Councils, joined by prominent citizens, sprouted throughout the South. They vowed that integration would never take place. In this atmosphere, the social protests of the civil rights movement were born.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

In December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the first major protests began. Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger, as required by the city’s segregation laws. Although often depicted as a weary older woman too tired to get up and move, Parks was actually a longtime, active member of the NAACP. A committed civil rights activist, she decided that she was not going to move. She was arrested and jailed for her defiant and courageous act.

The NAACP saw Parks’ arrest as an opportunity to challenge segregation laws in a major Southern city. The NAACP called on Montgomery’s black political and religious leaders to advocate a one-day boycott protesting her arrest. More than 75 percent of Montgomery’s black residents regularly used the bus system. On the day of the boycott, only eight blacks rode Montgomery’s buses.

The success of the one-day boycott inspired black leaders to organize a long-term boycott. They demanded an end to segregation on the city’s buses. Until this demand was met, blacks would refuse to ride Montgomery’s buses. A young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott.

Car pools were organized to get black participants to work. Many walked where they needed to go. After a month, Montgomery’s businesses were beginning to feel the boycott’s effects. Some segregationists retaliated. Blacks were arrested for walking on public sidewalks. Bombs exploded in four black churches. King’s home was firebombed.

King conceived of a strategy of non-violence and civil disobedience to resist the violent opposition to the boycott. In school, Henry David Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience had deeply impressed King. But King did not believe the Christian idea of “turning the other cheek” applied to social action until he studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, who introduced the “weapon” of non-violence during India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain. “We decided to raise up only with the weapon of protest,” King said. “It is one of the greatest glories of America.... Don’t let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love.” The tactic of non-violence proved effective in hundreds of civil rights protests in the racially segregated South.

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted 382 days. It ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on the city’s buses was unconstitutional.

The success of the boycott propelled King to national prominence and to leadership in the civil rights movement. When some Southern black ministers established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, they chose King as its leader. The SCLC continued to lead non-violent boycotts, demonstrations, and marches protesting segregation throughout the South.

The Sit-ins

In February 1960, four black college freshmen sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked to be served. They were ignored but remained seated until the counter closed. The next day they returned with more students, who sat peacefully at the counter waiting to be served. They, like the protesters in Montgomery, were practicing non-violent, civil disobedience. The Greensboro lunch-counter demonstrations were called “sit-ins.” As word of them spread, other students in cities throughout the South started staging sit-ins. By April 1960, more than 50,000 students had joined sit-ins.

The tactic called for well-dressed and perfectly behaved students to enter a lunch counter and ask for service. They would not move until they were served. If they were arrested, other students would take their place.

Students in many cities endured taunts, arrests, and even beatings. But their persistence paid off. Many targeted businesses began to integrate.

In October 1960, black students across the nation formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC — pronounced “snick”) to carry on the work that students had begun in the Greensboro sit-ins. SNCC operated throughout the deep South, organizing demonstrations, teaching in “Freedom Schools,” and registering voters.


A Freedom Rider sits in an Alabama hospital after being beaten. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Freedom Ride

Some of the most dangerous and dramatic episodes of the civil rights movement took place on the Freedom Ride. This was organized in 1961 by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group committed to direct, non-violent action. More than a decade earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregation on interstate buses and in interstate terminals unconstitutional. Despite this decision, the buses and stations remained rigidly segregated.

In May 1961, black and white freedom riders boarded buses bound for Southern states. At each stop, they planned to enter the segregated areas. CORE Director James Farmer said: “We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law.” At first, the riders met little resistance. But in Alabama, white supremacists surrounded one of the freedom riders’ buses, set it afire, and attacked the riders as they exited. Outside Birmingham, Alabama, a second bus was stopped. Eight white men boarded the bus and savagely beat the non-violent freedom riders with sticks and chains.

When he heard about the violence, President Kennedy sent federal agents to protect the freedom riders. Although the president urged the freedom riders to stop, they refused. Regularly met by mob violence and police brutality, hundreds of freedom riders were beaten and jailed. Although the Freedom Ride never reached its planned destination, New Orleans, it achieved its purpose. At the prodding of the Kennedy administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the integration of all interstate bus, train, and air terminals. Signs indicating “colored” and “white” sections came down in more than 300 Southern stations.


In 1963, Martin Luther King announced that the SCLC would travel to Birmingham, Alabama, to integrate public and commercial facilities. In defiance of Supreme Court orders, Birmingham had closed its public parks, swimming pools, and golf courses rather than integrate them. Its restaurants and lunch counters remained segregated.

Peaceful demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome” met an enraged white populace and an irate police chief named Eugene “Bull” Connor. Day after day, more demonstrators, including King, were thrown in jail. After a month, African-American youth, aged 6 to 18, started demonstrating. They too were jailed, and when the jails filled, they were held in school buses and vans. As demonstrations continued, Connor had no place left to house prisoners. Americans watched the evening news in horror as Connor used police dogs, billy clubs, and high-pressure fire hoses to get the children demonstrators off the streets. As tension mounted, city and business leaders gave in. They agreed to desegregate public facilities, hire black employees, and release all the people in jail.

March on Washington

The violence in Birmingham and elsewhere in the South prompted the Kennedy administration to act. It proposed a civil rights bill outlawing segregation in public facilities and discrimination in employment. The bill faced solid opposition from Southern members of Congress. In response, civil rights leaders organized a massive march on Washington, D.C. On August, 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled to the nation’s capital to demonstrate for civil rights. The peaceful march culminated in a rally where civil rights leaders demanded equal opportunity for jobs and the full implementation of constitutional rights for racial minorities. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It inspired thousands of people to increase their efforts and thousands of others to join the civil rights movement for the first time. Full press and television coverage brought the March on Washington to international attention.

Mississippi Freedom Summer

Much of the civil rights movement focused on voting rights. Since Reconstruction, Southern states had systematically denied African Americans the right to vote. Perhaps the worst example was Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. Many Mississippi counties had no registered black voters. Blacks lived under the constant threat of violence. Medgar Evers, a major civil rights leader in Mississippi, was murdered outside his home in 1963.

In 1964, SNCC and other civil rights organizations turned their attention to Mississippi. They planned to register Mississippi blacks to vote, organize a “Freedom Democratic Party” to challenge the whites-only Mississippi Democratic Party, establish freedom schools, and open community centers where blacks could obtain legal and medical assistance.

In June, only days after arriving in Mississippi, three Freedom Summer workers disappeared. They had been arrested for speeding and then released. On August 4, their bodies were found buried on a farm. The discovery directed the media’s attention to Mississippi, just two weeks before the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to begin.

A major dispute over the Mississippi delegation was brewing. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had elected delegates to attend the convention. They demanded to be seated in place of the segregationist Mississippi Democrats. Ultimately, a compromise was struck, but the power struggle at the convention raised the issue of voting rights before the entire nation.


In December 1964, the SCLC started a voter-registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. Although blacks outnumbered whites in Selma, few were registered to vote. For almost two months, Martin Luther King led marches to the courthouse to register voters. The sheriff responded by jailing the demonstrators, including King. The SCLC got a federal court order to stop the sheriff from interfering, but election officials still refused to register any blacks.

King decided to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. As marchers crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge out of Selma, state police attacked. A national television audience watched police beat men, women, and children mercilessly. This brutal attack shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which would put elections in Southern states under federal control.

Two weeks later, the march resumed under federal protection. More than 20,000 people celebrated when the marchers reached Montgomery, the site of the bus boycott 10 years earlier.


Thousands of Americans joined the March on Washington in August 1963. (Wikimedia Commons)

The North

Civil rights demonstrations also took place in the North. Although legal segregation existed primarily in the South, Northern blacks endured discrimination in employment and housing. Most lived in poverty in urban ghettos. King led demonstrations in Chicago, which the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called the “most residentially segregated large city in the nation.” Complaints of police brutality mobilized many African Americans and their supporters. They organized street rallies, picket lines, and other forms of non-violent protest that had dominated the civil rights movement in the South. Like their counterparts in the South, many of these protesters encountered hostility among the white population.

Until the 1960s, the civil rights movement had been integrated and non-violent. As the decade continued, however, the mood of confrontation intensified, reflecting the growing frustration of millions of African Americans. Major riots broke out in American cities, including Newark, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Thousands of injuries and arrests intensified the social conflicts. The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King sparked more violence, forcing the United States to confront its most troubling domestic crisis since the Civil War.

A “black power” movement emerged, challenging the philosophies of non-violence and integration. Like the non-violent movement, this development had powerful historical roots. It originated in the violent resistance against slavery and continued in the outlook of major black spokespersons throughout the 20th century. In the late 1960s, SNCC and CORE adopted “black power.” Activists argued that legal gains alone without corresponding economic and political power would deny millions of African Americans equal opportunity.

By the end of the decade with the Vietnam War escalating, the entire nation was in turmoil. Anti-war protests crossed paths with unrest in the cities. Black power took many forms. The Nation of Islam preached black separatism. Members of the Black Panther Party set up breakfast programs for children and published a daily newspaper while they armed themselves for a revolution. The media shifted focus from non-violent black leaders to the most radical black spokespersons. These new, more militant philosophies created considerable anxiety in mainstream America. By the mid-1970s, however, the Vietnam War had ended and the protests had subsided.

But the civil rights movement left a lasting legacy, forever changing the face of America. It pushed America toward its stated ideal of equality under the law. Blacks now vote freely throughout the South. The injustices and indignities of racially segregated restaurants, bathrooms, and theaters have become a regrettable relic of the past. The civil rights movement did not end America’s racial problems, but it showed that great changes are possible.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What do you think were the most effective strategies used during the civil rights movement? Why?
  2. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King stressed the involvement of many groups and reached out to people of all colors in the struggle for equality. The black power movement focused on organizing blacks, sometimes to the exclusion of other groups. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? Which do you think is more effective? Why?

For Further Reading

Dierenfield, Bruce J. The Civil Rights Movement. United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited. 2008.

Bullard, Sara. Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995.

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Race and Voting in the Segregated South

Race and Voting in the Segregated South

After returning home from World War II, veteran Medgar Evers decided to vote in a Mississippi election. But when he and some other black ex-servicemen attempted to vote, a white mob stopped them. “All we wanted to be was ordinary citizens,” Evers later related. “We fought during the war for America, Mississippi included. Now, after the Germans and Japanese hadn’t killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would....”


Grave of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Arlington National Cemetery. (Wikimedia Commons)

The most basic right of a citizen in a democracy is the right to vote. Without this right, people can be easily ignored and even abused by their government. This, in fact, is what happened to African-American citizens living in the South following Civil War Reconstruction. Despite the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteeing the civil rights of black Americans, their right to vote was systematically taken away by white supremacist state governments.

Voting During Reconstruction

After the Civil War, Congress acted to prevent Southerners from re-establishing white supremacy. In 1867, the Radical Republicans in Congress imposed federal military rule over most of the South. Under U.S. Army occupation, the former Confederate states wrote new constitutions and were readmitted to the Union, but only after ratifying the 14th Amendment. This Reconstruction amendment prohibited states from denying “the equal protection of the laws” to U.S. citizens, which included the former slaves.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified. It stated that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

More than a half-million black men became voters in the South during the 1870s (women did not secure the right to vote in the United States until 1920). For the most part, these new black voters cast their ballots solidly for the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

When Mississippi rejoined the Union in 1870, former slaves made up more than half of that state’s population. During the next decade, Mississippi sent two black U.S. senators to Washington and elected a number of black state officials, including a lieutenant governor. But even though the new black citizens voted freely and in large numbers, whites were still elected to a large majority of state and local offices. This was the pattern in most of the Southern states during Reconstruction.

The Republican-controlled state governments in the South were hardly perfect. Many citizens complained about overtaxation and outright corruption. But these governments brought about significant improvements in the lives of the former slaves. For the first time, black men and women enjoyed freedom of speech and movement, the right of a fair trial, education for their children, and all the other privileges and protections of American citizenship. But all this changed when Reconstruction ended in 1877 and federal troops withdrew from the old Confederacy.
Voting in Mississippi

With federal troops no longer present to protect the rights of black citizens, white supremacy quickly returned to the old Confederate states. Black voting fell off sharply in most areas because of threats by white employers and violence from the Ku Klux Klan, a ruthless secret organization bent on preserving white supremacy at all costs.

White majorities began to vote out the Republicans and replace them with Democratic governors, legislators, and local officials. Laws were soon passed banning interracial marriages and racially segregating railroad cars along with the public schools.

Laws and practices were also put in place to make sure blacks would never again freely participate in elections. But one problem stood in the way of denying African Americans the right to vote: the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed them this right. To a great extent, Mississippi led the way in overcoming the barrier presented by the 15th Amendment.


Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representative and later the Senate. Revels served in Congress from 1870 to 1871, representing Mississippi. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1890, Mississippi held a convention to write a new state constitution to replace the one in force since Reconstruction. The white leaders of the convention were clear about their intentions. “We came here to exclude the Negro,” declared the convention president. Because of the 15th Amendment, they could not ban blacks from voting. Instead, they wrote into the state constitution a number of voter restrictions making it difficult for most blacks to register to vote.

First, the new constitution required an annual poll tax, which voters had to pay for two years before the election. This was a difficult economic burden to place on black Mississippians, who made up the poorest part of the state’s population. Many simply couldn’t pay it.

But the most formidable voting barrier put into the state constitution was the literacy test. It required a person seeking to register to vote to read a section of the state constitution and explain it to the county clerk who processed voter registrations. This clerk, who was always white, decided whether a citizen was literate or not.

The literacy test did not just exclude the 60 percent of voting-age black men (most of them ex-slaves) who could not read. It excluded almost all black men, because the clerk would select complicated technical passages for them to interpret. By contrast, the clerk would pass whites by picking simple sentences in the state constitution for them to explain.

Mississippi also enacted a “grandfather clause” that permitted registering anyone whose grandfather was qualified to vote before the Civil War. Obviously, this benefited only white citizens. The “grandfather clause” as well as the other legal barriers to black voter registration worked. Mississippi cut the percentage of black voting-age men registered to vote from more than 90 percent during Reconstruction to less than 6 percent in 1892. These measures were copied by most of the other states in the South.

The Winds of Change

As a result of intimidation, violence, and racial discrimination in state voting laws, a mere 3 percent of voting-age black men and women in the South were registered to vote in 1940. In Mississippi, less than 1 percent were registered. Most blacks who did vote lived in the larger cities of the South.

By not having the power of the ballot, African Americans in the South had little influence in their communities. They did not hold elected offices. They had no say in how much their taxes would be or what laws would be passed. They had little, if any, control over local police, courts, or public schools. They, in effect, were denied their rights as citizens.

Attempts to change this situation were met with animosity and outright violence. But in the 1950s, the civil rights movement developed. Facing enormous hostility, black people in the South organized to demand their rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. They launched voter registration drives in many Southern communities. This set the stage for great changes in the 1960s, but not without tragedy. Medgar Evers, the black veteran stopped by a white mob from voting, became a civil rights leader in his native Mississippi. Because of his civil rights activities, he was shot and killed in front of his home by a white segregationist in 1963.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What legal devices did Southern states use to exclude most of their black citizens from voting? What other methods were used to stop blacks from voting?
  2. What was unfair about the way literacy tests were used for voter registration in the South from 1890 to 1965?
  3. What were the consequences to African Americans of being excluded from voting in the segregated South?

For Further Reading

McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Bond, Julian & Juan Williams. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.


Who Should Not Vote?

All states have some voting restrictions. Are they necessary? Below are five traditional restrictions on the right to vote. Form small groups to decide whether your state should retain each of these restrictions. Before making a decision on each restriction, the group should discuss and write answers to these two questions:

  1. What are some reasons favoring the restriction?
  2. What are some reasons against the restriction?

After the groups have finished their work, each restriction should be discussed and voted on by the entire class.

Restrictions on the Right to Vote

In order to vote, you must...

A. Reside in a voting district for at least one month.

B. Be at least 18 years of age.

C. Not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction.

D. Be a U.S. citizen.

E. Register to vote.

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A Brief History of Jim Crow

A Brief History of Jim Crow

“I can ride in first-class cars on the railroads and in the streets,” wrote journalist T. McCants Stewart. “I can stop in and drink a glass of soda and be more politely waited upon than in some parts of New England.” Perhaps Stewart’s comments don’t seem newsworthy. Consider that he was reporting from South Carolina in 1885 and he was black.


A marker in New Orleans stands where Homer Plessy was arrested in 1892. His case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in an infamous decision creating the legal doctrine of “separate, but equal.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Stewart had decided to tour the South because he feared for freedmen’s liberties. In 1868, with Amendment XIV, the Constitution had finally given black men full citizenship and promised them equal protection under the law. Blacks voted, won elected office, and served on juries. However, 10 years later, federal troops withdrew from the South, returning it to local white rule. And now, the Republican Party, champion of Reconstruction and freedmen’s rights, had fallen from national power. Would black people’s rights survive?

After a few weeks on the road, Stewart decided they would. True, terrorism against blacks — lynching, rape, arson — ran unchecked. True, many rural blacks lived under a sharecropping system little better than slavery. But Stewart noted many signs of change. He saw a black policeman arrest a white criminal. He saw whites casually talk with black strangers. “The morning light is breaking,” he told his readers.

Stewart was wrong. Over the next 20 years, blacks would lose almost all they had gained. Worse, denial of their rights and freedoms would be made legal by a series of racist statutes, the Jim Crow laws.

“Jim Crow” was a derisive slang term for a black man. It came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to Reconstruction. In the depression-racked 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their jobs to blacks. Politicians abused blacks to win the votes of poor white “crackers.” Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up (sometimes even making up) black crimes.

In 1890, in spite of its 16 black members, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law to prevent black and white people from riding together on railroads. Plessy v. Ferguson, a case challenging the law, reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. Upholding the law, the court said that public facilities for blacks and whites could be “separate but equal.” Soon, throughout the South, they had to be separate.

Two years later, the court seemed to seal the fate of black Americans when it upheld a Mississippi law designed to deny black men the vote. Given the green light, Southern states began to limit the voting right to those who owned property or could read well, to those whose grandfathers had been able to vote, to those with “good characters,” to those who paid poll taxes. In 1896, Louisiana had 130,334 registered black voters. Eight years later, only 1,342, 1 percent, could pass the state’s new rules.

Jim Crow laws touched every part of life. In South Carolina, black and white textile workers could not work in the same room, enter through the same door, or gaze out of the same window. Many industries wouldn’t hire blacks: Many unions passed rules to exclude them.

In Richmond, one could not live on a street unless most of the residents were people one could marry. (One could not marry someone of a different race.) By 1914, Texas had six entire towns in which blacks could not live. Mobile passed a Jim Crow curfew: Blacks could not leave their homes after 10 p.m. Signs marked “Whites Only” or “Colored” hung over doors, ticket windows, and drinking fountains. Georgia had black and white parks. Oklahoma had black and white phone booths.

Prisons, hospitals, and orphanages were segregated as were schools and colleges. In North Carolina, black and white students had to use separate sets of textbooks. In Florida, the books couldn’t even be stored together. Atlanta courts kept two Bibles: one for black witnesses and one for whites. Virginia told fraternal social groups that black and white members could not address each other as “Brother.”

Though seemingly rigid and complete, Jim Crow laws did not account for all of the discrimination blacks suffered. Unwritten rules barred blacks from white jobs in New York and kept them out of white stores in Los Angeles. Humiliation was about the best treatment blacks who broke such rules could hope for. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which revived in 1915, used venom and violence to keep blacks “in their place.”

More than 360,000 black men served in World War I. The country welcomed them home with 25 major race riots, the most serious in Chicago. White mobs lynched veterans in uniform. Black Americans fought back. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, and the Urban League publicized abuses and worked for redress.


Protesters march against school segregation. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though they drew support from both races, these groups barely stemmed the tide. The 1920s and 30s produced new Jim Crow laws. By 1944, a Swede visiting the South pronounced segregation so complete that whites did not see blacks except when being served by them.

But World War II changed America, inside and out. The link between white supremacy and Hitler’s “master race” could not be ignored. Jim Crow shocked United Nations delegates who reported home about the practice. “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills,” said a government spokesman. “It raises doubt even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”

In 1948, President Harry Truman took decisive action to promote racial equality. He urged Congress to abolish the poll tax, enforce fair voting and hiring practices, and end Jim Crow transportation between states. Four Southern states abandoned Truman’s Democratic Party in protest. Then, as commander in chief, Truman ordered the complete integration of the armed forces. He did not wipe out racism, but, trained to obey commands, officers complied as best they could. In Korea, during the 1950s, integrated U.S. forces fought their first war.

Back at home, when the new Eisenhower administration downplayed civil rights, federal courts took the lead. In 1950, the NAACP decided to challenge the concept of “separate but equal.” Fed up with poor, overcrowded schools, black parents in South Carolina and Virginia sued to get their children into white schools. Both times, federal courts upheld segregation. Both times, the parents appealed. Meanwhile, in a similar case, Delaware’s Supreme Court ordered a district to admit black students to white schools until adequate classrooms could be provided for blacks. This time, the district appealed.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider these three cases in combination with one other. In Topeka, Kansas, where schools for blacks and whites were equally good, Oliver Brown wanted his 8-year-old daughter, Linda, to attend a school close to home. State law, however, prevented the white school from accepting Linda because she was black.

On May 17, 1954, at the stroke of noon, the nine Supreme Court Justices announced their unanimous decision in the four cases, now grouped as Brown v. Board of Education. They held that racial segregation of children in public schools, even in schools of equal quality, hurt minority children. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The practice violated the Constitution’s 14th amendment and must stop. To some, the judgment seemed the fruitful end of a long struggle. Actually, the struggle had just begun.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Imagine that you were born black in 1860 and lived until 1920. Would you have any faith in the U.S. legal system? In the “American way of life”? Why or why not?
  2. How did Jim Crow laws affect the American image abroad? How did our foreign policy impact racial equality at home?
  3. Most laws are meant to promote the general welfare or protect society from an evil. Did Jim Crow laws serve these purposes? If so, how? If not, what was their purpose?
  4. Under Jim Crow, black facilities were often of far poorer quality than those reserved for whites. Separate rarely meant equal. If blacks and whites had received equal treatment, would Jim Crow laws have been fair?
  5. “I don’t believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions,” said one person who opposed court ordered desegregation. Do you agree with the statement? Is it a valid reason to continue segregation?
  6. Read the 14th Amendment and explain how the Supreme Court used it to disallow segregation in the Brown decision. Why didn’t the Court use it for the same purpose in Plessy v. Ferguson?

For Further Reading

Packard, Jerrald M. American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2002.

Chafe, William H. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South. New York: The New Press. 2001.

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African Americans and the 15th Amendment

African Americans and the 15th Amendment

Following the Civil War, Radical Republicans in Congress introduced a series of laws and constitutional amendments to try to secure civil and political rights for black people. This wing of the Republican Party was called “radical” because of its strong stance on these and other issues. The right that provoked the greatest controversy, especially in the North, concerned black male suffrage: the right of the black man to vote.


In 1867, Congress passed a law requiring the former Confederate states to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions. Ironically, even though African American men began voting in the South after 1867, the majority of Northern states continued to deny them this basic right.

In the North, the Republican’s once-huge voter majority over the Democratic Party was declining. Radical Republican leaders feared that they might lose control of Congress to the Democrats.

One solution to this problem called for including the black man’s vote in all Northern states.
Republicans assumed the new black voters would vote Republican just as their brothers were doing in the South. By increasing its voters in the North and South, the Republican Party could then maintain its stronghold in Congress.

The Republicans, however, faced an incredible dilemma. The idea of blacks voting was not popular in the North. In fact, several Northern states had recently voted against black male suffrage.

In May 1868, the Republicans held their presidential nominating convention in Chicago and chose Ulysses S. Grant as their candidate. The Republicans agreed that African-American male suffrage continued to be a requirement for the Southern states, but decided that the Northern states should settle this issue for themselves.

Grant was victorious in the election of 1868, but this popular general won by a surprisingly slim margin. It was clear to Republican leaders that if they were to remain in power, their party needed the votes of black men in the North.

The 15th Amendment

When the new year began in 1869, the Republicans were ready to introduce a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the black man’s right to vote. For two months, Congress considered the proposed amendment. Several versions of the amendment were submitted, debated, rejected and then reconsidered in both the House and Senate.

Finally, at the end of February 1869, Congress approved a compromise amendment that did not even specifically mention the black man:

Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Once approved by the required two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, the 15th Amendment had to be ratified by 28, or three-fourths, of the states. Due to the reconstruction laws, black male suffrage already existed in 11 Southern states. Since almost all of these states were controlled by Republican reconstruction governments, they could be counted on to ratify the 15th Amendment. Supporters of the 15th Amendment needed only 17 of the remaining 26 Northern and Western states in order to succeed. At this time, just nine of these states allowed the black man to vote. The struggle for and against ratification hung on what blacks and other political interests would do.

The Blacks

Only days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April, 1865, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In his speech, Douglass explained why the black man wanted the right to vote “in every state of the Union”:

It is said that we are ignorant; admit it. But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote ....What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.

While Congress debated the 15th Amendment early in 1869, 150 black men from 17 states assembled for a convention in Washington, D.C. This was the first national meeting of black Americans in the history of the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected president of the convention.

The delegates praised the Republicans in Congress for passing the reconstruction laws and congratulated General Grant on his election to the White House. They also pledged their continued support of the Republican Party.

Those attending the convention also spent time meeting with members of Congress, encouraging them to pass a strong amendment guaranteeing black male suffrage nationwide. When the meeting adjourned, the delegates were confident that a new era of democracy for the black man was about to begin.


A poster celebrates the passage of the 15th Amendment. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Democrats

The Democrats realized they were fighting for political survival. They feared ratification of the 15th Amendment would automatically create some 170,000 loyal black Republican voters in the North and West.

In debates over the amendment, Democrats argued against the ratification by claiming that the 15th Amendment restricted the states’ rights to run their own elections. The Democrats also charged the Republicans with breaking their promise of allowing the states, outside the South, to decide for themselves whether to grant black male suffrage. Democrat leaders cited the low level of literacy in the black population and they predicted black voters would be easily swayed by false promises and outright bribery.

Victory, Then Tragedy

Despite Democratic opposition, the Republicans steadily won ratification victories throughout 1869. Ironically, it was a Southern state, Georgia that clinched the ratification of the 15th Amendment on February 2, 1870.

On March 30, President Grant officially proclaimed the 15th Amendment as part of the Constitution. Washington and many other American cities celebrated. More than 10,000 blacks paraded through Baltimore. In a speech on May 5, 1870, Frederick Douglass rejoiced. “What a country — fortunate in its institutions, in its 15th Amendment, in its future.”

The jubilation over victory did not last long. While Republicans acquired loyal black voters in the North, the South was an entirely different matter. The Ku Klux Klan and other violent racist groups intimidated black men who tried to vote, or who had voted, by burning their homes, churches and schools, even by resorting to murder.

When the election for president in 1876 ended with a dispute over electoral votes, the Republicans made a deal with the Southern Democrats. First, the Southerners agreed to support Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes for president. In turn, the Republicans promised to withdraw troops from the South and abandon federal enforcement of black’s rights, including the right to vote.

Within a few years, the Southern state governments required blacks to pay voting taxes, pass literacy tests and endure many other unfair restrictions on their right to vote. In Mississippi, 67 percent of the black adult men were registered to vote in 1867; by 1892 only 4 percent were registered. The political deal to secure Hayes as president rendered the 15th Amendment meaningless. Another 75 years passed before black voting rights were again enforced in the South.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What was the “Republican dilemma” in 1868?
  2. During the ratification of the 15th Amendment, women’s suffrage leaders were told that it was “the Negro’s hour.” What did this mean? How did Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony respond to this argument? Do you think they did the right thing? Why or why not?

For Further Reading

Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass; selections from his writings, edited, with an introduction, by Philip S. Foner. New York International Press, 1964.

Gillette, William. The Right to Vote: Politics and Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1965.


Voting Rights Convention

In this activity, you will have a chance to re create history by going back to the year 1868 to participate in a voting rights convention. You will be assigned to a group that had a particular viewpoint on voting rights in 1868. Your group and four others at the convention will write a voting rights amendment to recommend to Congress. In this way, your class will have the opportunity to improve upon the original 15th Amendment that was passed by Congress early in 1869. For the purposes of this activity, it does not matter what your own sex or race is when you are assigned to one of the convention groups listed below.

Voting Rights Convention Groups: Republicans, Blacks, Abolitionists, Woman Suffragists, Democrats

  1. At random, assign each student to one of the five groups listed above.
  2. You should first re read the section of the article relating to your group (For example, Republicans should read “The Republican Dilemma.”)
  3. Next, discuss with your group what you think your purpose should be at this voting rights convention. For example, is your group in favor of a voting rights amendment? If so, what should it include? Write your purpose on a sheet of paper and have your teacher check it.
  4. Now re read the section titled, “The 15th Amendment.” If you are a member of the “Blacks” or “Abolitionists” also re-read the last section, “Victory, Then Tragedy.”
  5. With the other members of your group, write your own voting rights amendment. Remember to pay attention to the views and purpose of your group at this convention. You can use the wording of the actual 15th Amendment as a guide, but try to change or improve it from your group’s point of view.
  6. All the amendments written at the convention should now be put on the board. Each group with a proposed amendment should explain it to the entire convention. Members of other groups may ask questions or argue against it at this time.
  7. Finally, the convention members should vote on which voting rights amendment to recommend to Congress. However, the rules of the convention require that in order for an amendment to be recommended, two thirds of the convention members must approve it. If none of the proposed amendments receives at least two thirds of the convention votes, the group members should try to negotiate a compromise amendment that will attract the support of the other groups.
  8. After completing this activity, contrast your convention’s amendment with the original 15th Amendment. How are they different? Is the convention amendment better? Why? If the convention amendment had been ratified in 1870, would it have made any difference to black voters, women or other groups in American society?

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