“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson
As a previous post articulated, civil rights protect individuals from discrimination by the government and other individuals. Almost two hundred years after the eradication of slavery in the United States, the fight for the civil rights of African Americans continues. Let us reflect briefly on how far the nation has come.
Abbreviated Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement
- Civil War and Reconstruction: The Civil War (1861-1865) broke out in response to a long history of tension between the Northern and Southern United States. This tension primarily centered on the economic and social system of slavery. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), which freed all slaves in states in active rebellion against the Union. After the Confederacy lost the war in 1865, the North introduced a period of Reconstruction, which imposed tough political and economic sanctions on the Confederate states. As a prerequisite for their admission into the Union, Southern states were required to ratify the Civil War, or Reconstruction, amendments; the 13th Amendment prohibited all forms of slavery, the 14th Amendment gave full rights of citizenship to all individuals born or naturalized in the U.S., and the 15th Amendment enfranchised African Americans.
- Separate, but Equal: An embittered confederacy responded by establishing new social and political restrictions on African Americans. These restrictions came to be known as Jim Crow Laws, which instituted the legal segregation of schools, transportation, and other public facilities in the South. These laws grew in number and scope as the Southern states tried desperately to encumber the rights of blacks in their communities. The constitutionality of these laws was challenged in the courts. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) tested the legality of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, which segregated trains by law. The seven-to-one majority ruling in the case (one justice was absent due to a death in the family) declared that segregation was legal as long as it did not result in unequal treatment. This decision provided legal justification for segregation in the South.
- Separate is not Equal: In the aftermath of Plessy, the segregation of races increased in the South in areas of education, transportation, and public facilities. Blacks and whites attended different schools, utilized different public transportation, ate at different restaurants, and lived in different neighborhoods. Plessy made this segregation legal if the separate facilities were equal. However, this was almost always not the case; black facilities were underfunded and not equal to those of whites. Crucial court battles were fought in higher education, where the absence of black undergraduate and professional schools in the states was especially problematic (Sweatt v. Painter, 1950). Primary schools were also unequal. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), this separation was declared inherently unequal, and in Brown v. Board of Education II (1955) states were encouraged to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed.” However, some states were unwilling to put the rulings into practice. In some instances, the United States executive branch interceded to ensure that the states complied (i.e., the Little Rock Nine). Freedom Rides, Rosa Parks’ resistance, and bus boycotts were all part of the fight to desegregate public transportation and to draw attention to racial inequality in the South.
- Legislating Equal Protection: These court cases and movements were not enough, however, to ensure equal protection under the law. Without all government entities working together, progress was only piecemeal. Congress, with direction from President Lyndon B. Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guaranteed equal treatment and banned discrimination based on color, race, religion or national origin. Despite a substantial policy victory, the events in Selma, Alabama brought attention to the limitations on the voting rights of African Americans and continuing racism in the South. After “Bloody Sunday”, Congress quickly moved to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which targeted restrictions on the qualifications for voting including poll taxes, literacy tests, and limits on voter registration
- Present Day: Today, the nation wrestles with several civil rights issues. Affirmative action policies, aimed to promote equality for members of previously disadvantaged groups in society, are increasingly controversial. The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others continue to spark outcries from communities across America. The uproar around the brutal treatment of Martese Johnson by police on the University of Virginia campus provide a recent example of the racial tensions that currently exist in the United States.
Certainly, we have come far as a nation in ensuring civil rights (equal protection) to all citizens, but we are not there yet. Progress has been made when the government and the people join forces to make lasting change. Do you think racism still exists today? What do you think the country needs to do to move forward?
- Court Cases
- Selma to Montgomery March
- Montgomery Bus Boycott (Video)
- Little Rock Nine (Video)
- Rosa Parks (Video)
- Freedom Rides
- Freedom Riders (the movie)
- Selma (the movie)
- Stuff You Missed in History Podcasts:
- Uproar after black UVA student injured during arrest