Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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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...
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