With the end of the Civil War in 1865 came the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, declaring slavery illegal and freeing roughly four million African Americans, who had previously been held as property by white Americans. This new, massive, uneducated and unemployed group posed an immediate concern for those in control of the Southern states; but the question of who controlled these states remained up for debate. The federal government officially held control, by keeping Union troops in the South and passing numerous pieces of civil rights legislation (Congress had been unified by the exclusion of Southern representatives). However, many Southern whites resisted Washington's policies by passing discriminatory local laws and forming white supremacy groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

For the freed slaves at the center of this conflict, life at first seemed to improve. The first decade after the war, a period known as Reconstruction, brought changes suggesting that freedom could lead to prosperity. Strong federal legislation–including various Civil Rights Acts, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed civil rights for all, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights for blacks–enabled some blacks to win local office, and some to gain economic independence. A number of blacks were even elected to Congress.

In the mid 1870s, however, when Reconstruction ended and federal troops pulled out of the South, white Southerners quickly reversed the progressive changes. Many communities passed "Jim Crow" laws, which segregated public facilities. Some laws forbade black men from marrying white women; others classified blacks not employed by whites as destitute and subject to arrest; others created voting qualifications that kept blacks from the polls. The federal government implicitly affirmed such local statutes when, in 1896, the United States Supreme Court, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, declared the legality of "separate but equal" services and facilities for African Americans. This ruling, especially in its application to schools, greatly disadvantaged blacks. By the end of the century, people who had slaved by law under white taskmasters now slaved by economic necessity under the system of farming known as sharecropping, in which black farmers exchanged massive portions of their harvests for the right to work a white landowner's property.

The two most prominent African American leaders of this era were Booker T. Washington, a former slave and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, and W.E.B. DuBois, a professor of sociology and reformer, who had graduated from Harvard University. At the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Washington delivered a speech in which he asserted that it was the responsibility of African Americans to improve their own lot, and that blacks could be diligent manual workers first and specialized professions later. Many white people embraced this view of race relations, but its opponents–both black and white– dubbed it the "Atlanta Compromise." DuBois overtly attacked the spirit of Washington's address, advocating faster change. The contrast between these leaders foretokened a similar contrast in the 1960s between pacifistic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and militant leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

Between the turn of the century and the Great Depression, little changed for most African Americans. Life was characterized by the injustices of second-class citizenship; legal and political inequity represented the least vicious of these–all too commonly they were manifested in lynch mobs and murders. European immigration to the United States increased, and many African Americans resented these newcomers, who gained instantly the rights that were still denied blacks. In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded, and it went to court to fight for civil rights. The prejudice of the justice system against blacks, however, was clear. In the 1906 Brownsville case, African American soldiers, without trial or even evidence, were found guilty of shooting civilian whites, and were dishonorably discharged from the Army. In 1931 nine black men from Scottsboro, Alabama, were similarly convicted, this time of rape, on the unsubstantiated testimony of a few whites. These were just the best known of many unfair trials.

In the face of such injustices, not to mention the injustices of everyday life, some blacks of this era thought the only solution was to separate themselves from white society, either by creating their own organizations, businesses, and services, or by leaving the United States for Africa or the Caribbean. The most famous advocate of the latter proposal was Marcus Garvey, a separatist leader who campaigned in Northern cities.

When the Great Depression hit America in 1929, President Franklin Roosevelt began to implement public policies that benefited people on the margins of society, including African Americans. New Deal legislation, augmented by the successes of the NAACP, improved economic opportunities for blacks; once some blacks gained economic resources and influence, they could more effectively foster groups that protested legal and social inequality. World War II further raised the bar of expectation: abroad, African Americans gave their lives in battles against the racist Hitler; at home, a labor shortage provided industrial jobs for blacks, and led to a mass migration from Southern farms to Northern cities. When the War ended, therefore, and white society tried to resume old forms of discrimination, blacks had seen what life could offer them; they refused to return to their former state of oppression.

Civil rights emerged as a national issue. The landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, asserting that separate facilities could never be equal. The next major civil rights event was the Montgomery Bus Boycott; which inaugurated Martin Luther King, Jr. as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The Movement would dominate the domestic arena of United States politics in the 1950s and most of the 1960s.

Popular pages: Martin Luther King, Jr.