Segregation and The Civil Rights Movement


Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every
sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often
called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s who
was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks.
Segregation became common in Southern states following the end of Reconstruction
in 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865),
Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners,
and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws
opening up economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 the
Democratic Party had gained control of government in the Southern states, and
these Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made during
Reconstruction. To that end, they began to pass local and state laws that
specified certain places "For Whites Only" and others for "Colored." Blacks had
separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were
poorly funded and inferior to those of whites. Over the next 75 years, Jim Crow
signs went up to separate the races in every possible place. The system of
segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement.
Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for
voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th
Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to
protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read
and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to
education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and
paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern blacks, who
were very poor. As a final insult, the few blacks who made it over all these
hurdles could not vote in the Democratic primaries that chose the candidates
because they were open only to whites in most Southern states. Because blacks
could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating
all aspects of Southern life. They could do little to stop discrimination in
public accommodations, education, economic opportunities, or housing. The
ability to struggle for equality was even undermined by the prevalent Jim Crow
signs, which constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status in Southern
society. Segregation was an all encompassing system. Conditions for blacks in
Northern states were somewhat better, though up to 1910 only about 10 percent of
blacks lived in the North, and prior to World War II (1939-1945), very few
blacks lived in the West. Blacks were usually free to vote in the North, but
there were so few blacks that their voices were barely heard. Segregated
facilities were not as common in the North, but blacks were usually denied
entrance to the best hotels and restaurants. Schools in New England were usually
integrated, but those in the Midwest generally were not. Perhaps the most
difficult part of Northern life was the intense economic discrimination against
blacks. They had to compete with large numbers of recent European immigrants for
job opportunities and almost always lost.

Early Black Resistance to Segregation

Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s blacks
sued in court to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states'
disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One
of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in
which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that "separate but equal"
accommodations were constitutional. In fact, separate was almost never equal,
but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation for
the next 50 years. To protest segregation, blacks created new national
organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagara
Movement in 1905; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) in 1909. In 1910 the National Urban League was created to help
blacks make the transition to urban, industrial life. The NAACP became one of
the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied
mainly on a legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in
courts to obtain equal treatment for blacks. An early leader of the NAACP was
the historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, who starting in 1910 made
powerful arguments in favor of protesting segregation as editor of the NAACP
magazine, The Crisis. NAACP lawyers won court victories over voter
disfranchisement in 1915 and residential segregation in 1917, but failed to have
lynching outlawed by the Congress of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.
These cases laid the foundation for a legal and social challenge to segregation
although they did little to change everyday life. In 1935 Charles H. Houston,
the NAACP's