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Segregation in the United States

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Johnson Signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964Johnson Signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964
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Social Challenges to Segregation

After the war, the push to end segregation began in earnest, led by NAACP lawyers, veterans, and social activists. Ironically, the first victory came not from lawyers or activists, but from the actions of a single white businessman. Since the 1880s major league baseball had banned black players. Because of this, black athletes played in the segregated Negro Leagues. That practice came to an end in 1945 when Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, concluded that segregation in major-league professional baseball was morally wrong. He also realized that it was politically indefensible in New York state and that integration might bring more fans to the ballpark. The same year, he signed Jackie Robinson, a brilliant athlete, who as an officer during the war had been acquitted in a court-martial for challenging illegal segregation on an army base. Robinson spent his first year playing for the Dodger minor league team in Montréal. He hit a home run in his first game and was an instant star. After one season in the minor leagues, he integrated the major leagues. A few other teams hired blacks, and by 1954 most teams had black players. A number of these black athletes—including Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron—became stars to white and black fans alike. If the national pastime could be integrated, it seemed only a matter of time before the nation’s schools, playgrounds, buses, and restaurants could also be integrated.


Legal Challenges to Segregation

Starting in the 1930s, a group of black attorneys had been fighting segregation through the courts. They were led by Charles Hamilton Houston, the vice dean at Howard University, and his student, Thurgood Marshall, who eventually became the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Joining them were other Howard graduates, like Spottswood William Robinson, III, a future federal judge, and Oliver W. Hill, who eventually became the first black member of the Richmond City Council in the 20th century and a leading civil rights attorney in Virginia. In Hollins v. Oklahoma (1935), Houston challenged the exclusion of blacks from juries. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of the defendant, ruling that jury exclusion was unconstitutional. The case was the first Supreme Court victory by an exclusively black counsel representing the NAACP. In 1939 the NAACP created a separate, nonprofit organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to bring cases in state and federal courts that continually challenged segregation and racial discrimination.

After 1942 legal challenges to segregation were more successful; by that year, the Supreme Court had been radically remade by Franklin Roosevelt’s appointments. The justices disagreed with each other on many issues, but they generally agreed that racial discrimination was wrong. The court, which would eventually strike down all laws allowing segregation, began laying the groundwork for this change in the 1940s. In Smith v. Allwright (1944), the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for political parties to ban blacks from voting in primary elections where the candidates were chosen. Between 1946 and 1950, the court struck down segregation in interstate railroad trains, in state sponsored law schools, and in other graduate schools. In Sweat v. Painter (1950), the court ordered the University of Texas to integrate its law school. The court held that a new law school for blacks could never be equal to the established law school at the university.

In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the court declared that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” This landmark decision broke the back of segregation. After Brown, the court gradually struck down all remaining forms of segregation. In Gayle v. Browder (1956), the Supreme Court silently overturned the Plessy precedent by holding that segregation was unconstitutional on public buses. This case grew out of the Montgomery bus boycott, which began when civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. In Loving v. Virginia (1967), the court struck down laws banning interracial marriage. By 1968 all forms of de jure segregation had been declared unconstitutional.


Political Challenges to Segregation

During the 1960s demonstrators in the Civil Rights Movement protested segregation throughout the South and in many Northern cities. The protesters held rallies, boycotted segregated businesses, worked to register black voters, and marched to try to end Southern segregation. Organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were active throughout the South to try to rally people to challenge segregation.

Many demonstrators were beaten by police, and scores were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white terrorist organizations. Two important Southern civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated by opponents of integration. In Philadelphia, Mississippi, the police conspired with local members of the KKK to murder three civil rights workers (two white and one black) and bury their bodies in a dam.

In response to the civil rights protests, Congress passed new and stronger civil rights laws in 1964, 1965, and 1968. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in public education, public accommodations and by employers or voter registrars. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of voter-qualification tests such as literacy tests and later amendments to the act banned their use. The 1968 act outlawed racial discrimination in federally funded housing projects.

By the 1970s violence against civil rights workers had begun to dissipate in the South. Formal segregation was also gone. No governments maintained separate schools for blacks and whites, and separate facilities such as drinking fountains and restrooms had disappeared. Millions of blacks who had been disenfranchised could vote, and by the 1990s blacks held major public offices in the South, serving as mayors, governors, and state officials. Civil rights spread in the North as well, where blacks served as mayors of the three largest cities, and held high office in state and local government. At the national level, blacks served on the Supreme Court, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, in presidential cabinets, and as head of the joint chiefs of staff.


De Facto Segregation

Although de jure segregation was abolished by 1968, de facto segregation was still prevalent in most Northern and Southern cities. Blacks tended to live in all-black neighborhoods, often called ghettos. There were three main reasons for the formation of these neighborhoods. First, housing patterns were dictated by real estate agents, banks, and city zoning decisions. Often real estate agents would not show blacks homes in white neighborhoods while banks often refused to loan money to blacks moving into white neighborhoods. City planners often kept neighborhoods segregated through decisions on where to locate streets, interstate highways, access ramps to those highways, and even subway and other rail stations. Second, while formal segregation in schools disappeared, public officials often created school districts designed to keep blacks and whites separated. Finally, suburbanization also increased de facto segregation, as whites increasingly left the cities for suburban communities. In 1968 only two major American cities, Washington and Charleston, had black majorities. By 1990 more than 15 cities were predominantly black, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and Richmond. Rather than live near blacks, or have their children attend schools with blacks, many whites moved away from the cities.

Economics and access to jobs compounded these race-conscious decisions by individuals and governments. Discrimination in hiring meant that blacks earned less than whites, and therefore had less money for housing. Thus, even where blacks had access to better housing, in integrated neighborhoods, most could not afford to move there. Also, many blacks chose to live in neighborhoods with other blacks, just as whites chose to live with other whites. Blacks who did integrate neighborhoods in both the North and the South often faced violence and intimidation.

Because students have traditionally attended schools in the neighborhoods where they live, most schools have remained segregated, not because the law required it, but because of where people lived. In the South, segregation was increased when whites removed their children from public schools when courts ordered integration. As a result, in Southern communities the public schools were legally integrated, but often only blacks attended them. Meanwhile, whites attended private schools.

Education was tied to job discrimination. Blacks had fewer educational opportunities than whites and thus were increasingly less able to compete in a changing job market that required greater skills and more training from workers. In the 1960s, and again in the 1990s urban riots shook major cities. Most experts argued that these riots resulted from frustration on the part of black youths, who saw little chance of finding meaningful work or even steady jobs. The social statistics on race were grim. In comparison with whites and Asian Americans, blacks lived shorter lives, had higher rates of infant mortality, were more likely to be unemployed, and had less chance of graduating high school or going to college.


Affirmative Action

The goal of civil rights activists from before the Civil War until the 1960s was to end legal discrimination, to achieve the ideal set out by Justice Harlan, that the “Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” By the late 1960s, this goal had been achieved. However, it did not lead to radical changes in the socioeconomic condition of blacks. To remedy this condition, blacks began to demand affirmative action as a way of increasing black participation in the economy and the society.

In a speech in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson articulated the rationale for affirmative action: “You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Thus, both President Johnson and President Richard M. Nixon established policies to guarantee that blacks and other minorities would in fact be hired by federal contractors. This led to various affirmative action programs to insure that blacks and other minorities had access to higher education and employment. These programs tried to encourage the hiring and promotion of minorities and women in order to counteract past and present discrimination. Affirmative action also included special educational programs and recruitment for these groups.

Affirmative action has been very controversial. Opponents call it reverse discrimination and argue that it gives a preference to people on the basis of their race. Supporters argue that past discrimination requires remedial measures and that without affirmative action blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities would have great difficulty moving into mainstream America.

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