Slavery was legal in roughly half of the states up until the Civil War. After the war ended, the Constitution was amended three times to end slavery and ban discrimination against blacks. But discrimination and segregation did not end until the significant Supreme Court cases of the 1950s.
Adopted between 1865 and 1870, the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution form the legal basis for the protection of civil rights:
To supplement the Reconstruction Amendments, Congress passed several civil rights laws in the 1860s and 1870s. These laws gave the president the authority to use the military to enforce civil rights for blacks and made it illegal for states to restrict voting along racial lines.
After the federal troops withdrew from the South at the end of Reconstruction in 1877, white southerners quickly took over state governments and openly flouted the recent laws designed to protect the rights of former slaves. Several state governments in the South went so far as to legalize discrimination of blacks; these laws are known as the Jim Crow laws.
Even though the Fifteenth Amendment gave all men the right to vote, the southern states employed a variety of tactics to prevent blacks from voting, including the following:
Several Supreme Court decisions also weakened the civil rights amendments. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court held that the state government could segregate public transportation and thus established the separate but equal doctrine: Blacks could be forced into separate accommodations, including theater seats and hotels, as long as the accommodations were equal to those given to whites.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. Energetic and talented lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall (later the first African American Supreme Court justice) began fighting racial segregation and discrimination via the courts.
Encouraged by the NAACP, several black families around the country challenged school segregation laws by demanding that their children be allowed to attend white schools. These cases eventually reached the Supreme Court, where they were then consolidated into a few cases. In 1954, the Court issued a landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson by stating that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional and that segregation in public schools was illegal.
In 1955, the Court issued another ruling (sometimes called Brown 2) that ordered lower courts to enforce integration “with all deliberate speed.” The phrase was intentionally vague, however. Brown 2 was an attempt to force an end to segregation without creating mass unrest. Many white southerners angrily protested the Brown decision, and many schools remained segregated. Although the courts ended de jure segregation (segregation imposed by law), de facto segregation (segregation due to residential patterns and economic factors) persisted.
In 1955, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the colored section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of civil disobedience set off a yearlong boycott of the Montgomery bus system led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1956, a federal court ordered the end of segregation of the Montgomery bus system.
In 1957, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize campaigns to end segregation and discrimination. King advocated nonviolent tactics and encouraged peaceful marches, protests, and other acts of civil disobedience to achieve his goals. King’s peaceful approach had a tremendous impact on the nation because it contrasted so strongly with white southerners’ violent responses to his campaigns. In 1963, for example, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, ordered that his officers attack black protesters with dogs, fire hoses, and cattle prods. Many Americans saw this on television and were horrified by southern police brutality. King’s civil rights campaign culminated in the 1963 March on Washington. Speaking to several hundred thousand people on the national mall—and millions more watching on television—King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for a color-blind society and an end to discrimination.
In the mid-1960s, Congress passed several laws in an attempt to end discrimination:
Affirmative action programs try to rectify past discrimination by giving minorities and women special consideration when employees are hired and students are admitted into universities. Proponents argue that affirmative action rights past wrongs and helps erase the effects of racism and other bias. Critics argue that affirmative action unfairly discriminates against whites, a phenomenon known as reverse discrimination.
In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in its first affirmative action case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The Court upheld affirmative action but argued that although race could be a factor in admissions decisions, it could not be the only factor.