The Civil Rights Movement

Separate But Equal

Separate but equal was a legal doctrine in American constitutional law that justified systems of segregation.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the reasoning behind the separate of “Separate but Equal” before the Civil Rights Movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Under this doctrine, services, facilities and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race, on the condition that the quality of each group’s public facilities was to remain equal.
  • Although the Constitutional doctrine required equality, the facilities and social services offered to African-Americans were almost always of lower quality than those offered to white Americans.
  • The doctrine of “separate but equal” was legitimized in the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson.

Key Terms

  • Reconstruction: A period in U.S. history from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation tried to resolve the status of the ex-Confederate states, the ex-Confederate leaders, and the Freedmen (ex-slaves) after the American Civil War.

Separate but equal was a legal doctrine in American constitutional law that justified systems of segregation. Under this doctrine, services, facilities and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race on the condition that the quality of each group’s public facilities was to remain equal.

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Segregation: A store catering to “whites only” under the separate but equal doctrine.

After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, former slave-holding states enacted various laws to undermine the equal treatment of African Americans, although the 14th Amendment, as well as federal Civil Rights laws enacted after the Civil War, were meant to guarantee such treatment. Southern states contended that the requirement of equality could be met in a manner that kept the races separate. Furthermore, the state and federal courts tended to reject the pleas by African Americans that their 14th Amendment rights had been violated, arguing that the 14th amendment applied only to federal, not state, citizenship.

The doctrine of “separate but equal” was legitimized in the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy, who was of mixed ancestry, claimed that his constitutional rights had been violated when he was forced to move to a “colored’s only car” while riding a train. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruling “[required] railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in that State to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and colored races…,” establishing the actual term “separate but equal” in the process. After this ruling, not only was “separate but equal” applied to railroad cars, but also schools, voting rights and drinking fountains. Segregated schools were created for students, as long as they followed “separate but equal”.

Although the Constitutional doctrine required equality, the facilities and social services offered to African-Americans were almost always of lower quality than those offered to white Americans. For example, many African-American schools received less public funding per student than nearby white schools. In Texas, the state established a state-funded law school for white students without any law school for black students.

The repeal of such laws establishing racial segregation, generally known as Jim Crow laws, was a key focus of the Civil Rights Movement prior to 1954. The doctrine of “separate but equal” was eventually overturned by the Linda Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Case in 1954.

Brown v. Board of Education and School Integration

Brown v. Board of Education was a Supreme Court case which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the phenomena of de jure and de facto segregation in the United States during the mid-1900s and the significance of the Brown v. Board of Education decision for the Civil Rights Movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state -sponsored segregation.
  • The plaintiffs argued that systematic racial segregation, while masquerading as providing separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans.
  • The key holding of the Court was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was socially and psychologically harmful to black students and therefore unconstitutional.

Key Terms

  • de jure: By right, in accordance with the law, legally.

Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 that allowed state-sponsored segregation. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Court’s unanimous (9–0) decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. ” As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This ruling paved the way for further racial integration and was a major victory of the civil rights movement.

In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were 13 Topeka parents who, on behalf of their 20 children, called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. The plaintiffs argued that systematic racial segregation, while seeming to provide separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. The lead plaintiff was Oliver L. Brown, whose daughter Linda had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was only seven blocks from her house.

The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the case moved to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren convened a meeting of the justices and presented to them with the argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of African-American citizens. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive southern resistance. Warren drafted the basic opinion and kept circulating and revising it until the opinion was endorsed by all the members of the Court.

Eventually, the key decision of the Court was that even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was socially and psychologically harmful to black students and, therefore, unconstitutional. This aspect was vital because the question was not whether the schools were “equal,” which under Plessy they nominally should have been, but whether the doctrine of separate was constitutional.

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The Warren Court: The members of the Warren Court that unanimously agreed on Brown v. Board of Education.

Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement aimed to outlaw racial discrimination against black Americans, particularly in the South.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the legal strategies and “direct action” approaches used to challenge racial discrimination

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Characteristics of the Jim Crow system included racial segregation, voter disenfranchisement, economic exploitation, and organized violence against the black community.
  • After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, civil rights organization broadened their strategy to emphasize “direct action”—primarily boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches and similar tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.
  • Key events in the Civil Rights Movement included: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, student sit-ins, Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and the March on Washington.

Key Terms

  • disenfranchisement: Explicit or implicit revocation of, or failure to grant the right to vote, to a person or group of people.
  • desegregation: the act or process of ending the separation of two groups, usually referring to race

The African American Civil Rights Movement refers to the social movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against black Americans and restoring voting rights to them. The Civil Rights Movement generally lasted from 1955 to 1968 and was particularly focused in the American South.

After the period of Reconstruction, the American South maintained an entrenched system of overt, state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression. Characteristics of this system, also known as “Jim Crow,” included racial segregation, voter disenfranchisement, economic exploitation, and organized violence against the black community. African Americans and other racial minorities resisted this regime in numerous ways and sought better opportunities through lawsuits, new organizations (such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), political redress, and labor organizing.

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, civil rights organization broadened their strategy to emphasize “direct action”—primarily boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches and similar tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. This mass action approach typified the movement from 1960 to 1968. Churches, local grassroots organizations, fraternal societies, and black-owned businesses mobilized volunteers to participate in broad-based actions. This was a more direct and potentially more rapid means of orchestrating change than the traditional approach of mounting court challenges.

Key events in the Civil Rights Movement included: the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which began when Rosa Parks, a NAACP secretary, was arrested when she refused to cede her public bus seat to a white passenger; the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School (1957); the Selma to Montgomery marches, also known as Bloody Sunday and the two marches that followed, were marches and protests held in 1965 that marked the political and emotional peak of the American civil rights movement which sought to secure voting rights for African-Americans. All three were attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery where the Alabama capitol is located. The student sit-ins protesting segregated lunch counters (1960); the Freedom Rides (1961) in which activists attempted to integrate bus terminals, restrooms, and water fountains; voter registration drives; and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), in which civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

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The March on Washington: The March on Washington, a key event in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Acts

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed forms of discrimination against women and minorities.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • President John F. Kennedy called for the passage of the bill, though it was President Lyndon Johnson who would sign the bill into law after Kennedy’s assassination.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 emulated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which established equal treatment in public accommodations.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African-Americans.

Key Terms

  • Attorney General: the head of the United States Department of Justice; concerned with legal affairs as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: a landmark piece of legislation outlawing major forms of discrimination against women as well as minorities.
  • civil rights: legal or moral entitlements which are expressly enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and are considered to be unquestionable, deserved by all people under all circumstances, especially without regard to race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender and disabilities

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of United States legislation outlawing major forms of discrimination against women as well as racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial discrimination in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public.

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President John F. Kennedy: President John F. Kennedy, who called for the passage of a civil rights bill

In a civil rights speech on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy called for passage of the bill, which he said would “give all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments,” as well as “greater protection for the right to vote. ” Emulating the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which established equal treatment in public accommodations, Kennedy’s civil rights bill included provisions to ban discrimination in public accommodations. It also enabled the U.S. Attorney General to join in lawsuits against state governments which operated segregated school systems. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson utilized his experience in legislative politics to garner support for the bill, which was passed in July 1964.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of national legislation in the United States that prohibits discrimination in voting. Echoing the language of the 15th Amendment, the Act prohibits states and local governments from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure… to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color. ” Specifically, Congress intended the Act to outlaw the practice of requiring otherwise qualified voters to pass literacy tests in order to register to vote, a principal means by which Southern states had prevented African Americans from exercising the franchise. The Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had earlier signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.The Civil Rights Act was followed by the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1965. The Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Specifically, the Act outlawed the practice of requiring otherwise qualified voters to pass literary tests to register to vote. This was a principal means by which Southern states had prevented African-Americans from exercising the franchise.

The Act established extensive federal oversight of elections administration, providing that states and local governments with a history of discriminatory voting practices could not implement any change affecting voting without first obtaining the approval of the Department of Justice, a process known as preclearance. The Act allowed “poll watchers” to ensure state compliance with federal legislation. It also eliminated literacy tests as a precondition for voting, effectively removing barriers to African American voter registration. These enforcement provisions applied to states and political subdivisions (mostly in the South) that had used a “device” to limit voting and in which less than 50 percent of the population was registered to vote in 1964. The Act has been renewed and amended by Congress four times, the most recent being a 25-year extension signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.

Continuing Challenges in Race Relations in the U.S.

The Civil Rights Movement influenced racial integration, but tensions with affirmative action and racism still affect racial relations.

Learning Objectives

Explain why racial profiling remains controversial

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Affirmative action refers to policies that take factors including race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin into consideration in order to benefit underrepresented groups in areas of employment, education, and business.
  • Opponents emphasize that affirmative action is counterproductive, as choosing people based on their social group instead of solely their qualifications has the effect of devaluing their accomplishments.
  • Racial profiling refers to the use of an individual’s race or ethnicity by law enforcement personnel as a key factor in deciding whether to engage in enforcement.
  • After Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, he appointed Vice President Agnew to lead a task force, which worked with local leaders—both white and black—to determine how to integrate local schools.
  • Supporters of affirmative action often cite their goals as bridging inequalities in employment and pay; increasing access to education; enriching state, institutional, and professional leadership with the full spectrum of society; and redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances.

Key Terms

  • reverse discrimination: The policy or practice of discriminating against members of a designated group which has in the past unfairly received preferential treatment in social, legal, educational, or employment situations, with the intention of benefiting one or more other groups (such as racial, disabled, or gender groups) that have previously been discriminated against.

Continuing Challenges

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President Lyndon B. Johnson: Lyndon B. Johnson, who successfully utilized negative political advertising in the famous “Daisy ad” during the 1964 election

Background

Though much progress has been made in establishing racial equality since the time of the Civil Rights Movement, there still exist numerous challenges in this area. Two issues relating to race that remain controversial are the debates surrounding affirmative action and racial profiling.

Affirmative action refers to policies that take factors including race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin into consideration in order to benefit underrepresented groups in areas of employment, education, and business. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive order 11246, affirming the Federal Government ‘s commitment “to promote the full realization of equal employment opportunity through a positive, continuing program in each executive department and agency. ”

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Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States: Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, and resigned in 1974 amidst the Watergate scandal. His presidency included foreign policy achievements, most notably improved relations with China.

After Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, he appointed Vice President Agnew to lead a task force, which worked with local leaders—both white and black—to determine how to integrate local schools. Agnew had little interest in the work, and Labor Secretary George Shultz did most of it. Federal aid was available, and a meeting with President Nixon was a possible reward for compliant committees. By September 1970, fewer than ten percent of black children were attending segregated schools. By 1971, however, tensions over desegregation surfaced in Northern cities, with angry protests over the busing of children to schools outside their neighborhood to achieve racial balance. Nixon opposed busing personally but enforced court orders requiring its use. 

In addition to desegregating public schools, Nixon implemented the Philadelphia Plan in 1970—the first significant federal affirmative action program. He also endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment after it passed both houses of Congress in 1972 and went to the states for ratification. Nixon had campaigned as an ERA supporter in 1968. However, feminists criticized him for doing little to help the ERA or their cause after his election even though he appointed more women to administration positions than Lyndon Johnson had.

 

Racial Profiling

Racial profiling refers to the use of an individual’s race or ethnicity by law enforcement personnel as a key factor in deciding whether to engage in enforcement (e.g. make a traffic stop or arrest). The practice is controversial and illegal in many jurisdictions. Racial profiling is challenged at a federal level by both the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to be safe from search and seizure without a warrant (which is to be issued “upon probable cause”); and the 14th Amendment, which requires that all citizens be treated equally under the law. Nonetheless, racial profiling is sometimes practiced in African-American, Hispanic, and Muslim communities within the U.S.

Today’s Controversy of Affirmative Action

The controversy surrounding affirmative action’s effectiveness is based on the idea of class inequality. Opponents of racial affirmative action argues that the program actually benefits middle and upper class African Americans and Hispanic Americans at the expense of lower-income European Americans and Asian Americans. This argument supports the idea of solely class-based affirmative action. America’s poor is disproportionately made up of people of color, so class-based affirmative action would disproportionately help people of color. This would eliminate the need for race-based affirmative action as well as reducing any disproportionate benefits for middle and upper class people of color.

Supporters of affirmative action often cite their goals as

  • bridging inequalities in employment and pay;
  • increasing access to education;
  • enriching state, institutional, and professional leadership with the full spectrum of society;
  • redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances.

Opponents emphasize that affirmative action is counterproductive. They believe that choosing people based on their social group instead of solely their qualifications has the effect of devaluing their accomplishments; opponents also claim that affirmative action is a form of “reverse discrimination” and may increase racial tension.