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.

Reconstruction Amendments (1865–1870)

Adopted between 1865 and 1870, the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution form the legal basis for the protection of civil rights:

  • The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) makes slavery and involuntary service illegal.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) declares that anyone born in the United States is a citizen of both the United States and of the state in which the person resides; it also contains three key clauses:
  1. The privileges and immunities clause states that no state can be deprive a citizen of the privileges and immunities of citizenship.
  2. The due process clause states that no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
  3. The equal protection clause declares that all citizens have the equal protection of the law.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) declares that no person, including former slaves, can be denied the right to vote on the basis of race

Early Civil Rights Laws (1860s–1870s)

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.

The Jim Crow Laws and Supreme Court Decisions (1880s–1900s)

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:

  • Whites-only primaries: Nonwhites were barred from primaries because Democrats argued that political parties were private organizations and thus not subject to antidiscrimination laws.
  • Literacy tests: Blacks were required to pass complex tests that were graded by white election officials in order to vote.
  • Poll taxes: Some states required people to pay a fee in order to vote.
  • Grandfather clause: If a person could prove that his grandfather was eligible to vote prior to 1867, he could bypass the literacy tests and other barriers; because no blacks could vote at that time, they had to pass the difficult literacy tests.

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.

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