Before the American Civil War, almost four million blacks were enslaved in the South, only white men of property could vote, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only. Following the Civil War, three constitutional amendments were passed, including the 13th Amendment (1865) that ended slavery; the 14th Amendment (1868) that gave African-Americans citizenship, adding their total population of four million to the official population of southern states for Congressional apportionment; and the 15th Amendment (1870) that gave African-American males the right to vote (only males could vote in the U.S. at the time). From 1865 to 1877, the United States underwent a turbulent Reconstruction Era trying to establish free labor and civil rights of freedmen in the South after the end of slavery. Many whites resisted the social changes, leading to insurgent movements such as the Ku Klux Klan, whose members attacked black and white Republicans to maintain white supremacy. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant, the U.S. Army, and U.S. Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, initiated a campaign to repress the KKK under the Enforcement Acts. Some states were reluctant to enforce the federal measures of the act; by the early 1870s, other white supremacist and paramilitary groups arose that violently opposed African-American legal equality and suffrage. However, if the states failed to implement the acts, the laws allowed the Federal Government to get involved. Many Republican governors were afraid of sending black militia troops to fight the Klan for fear of war.
After the disputed election of 1876 resulted in the end of Reconstruction and federal troops were withdrawn, whites in the South regained political control of the region's state legislatures by the end of the century, after having intimidated and violently attacked blacks before and during elections.
From 1890 to 1908, southern states passed new constitutions and laws to disenfranchise African Americans and many poor whites by creating barriers to voter registration; voting rolls were dramatically reduced as blacks and poor whites were forced out of electoral politics. After the landmark court case of Smith v. Allwright progress was made in increasing black political participation in the Rim South and Acadiana – although almost entirely in urban areas and a few rural localities where most blacks worked outside plantations. The status quo ante of excluding African Americans from the political system lasted in the remainder of the South, especially North Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, until national civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s to provide federal enforcement of constitutional voting rights. For more than sixty years, blacks in the South were not able to elect anyone to represent their interests in Congress or local government. Since they could not vote, they could not serve on local juries.
During this period, the white-dominated Democratic Party maintained political control of the South. With whites controlling all the seats representing the total population of the South, they had a powerful voting block in Congress. The Republican Party—the “party of Lincoln” and the party to which most blacks had belonged—shrank to insignificance as black voter registration was suppressed except in remote Unionist areas of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Until 1965, the “Solid South” was a one-party system under the Democrats, and excepting previously-noted historic Unionist strongholds the Democratic Party nomination was tantamount to election for state and local office. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, making him the first African American to attend an official dinner there. “The invitation was roundly criticized by southern politicians and newspapers.” Washington persuaded the president to appoint more blacks to federal posts in the South and to try to boost African-American leadership in state Republican organizations. However, this was resisted by both white Democrats and white Republicans as an unwanted federal intrusion into state politics.
During the same time as African Americans were being disenfranchised, white Democrats imposed racial segregation by law. Violence against blacks increased, with numerous lynchings through the turn of the century. The system of de jure state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression that emerged from the post-Reconstruction South became known as the "Jim Crow" system. The United States Supreme Court, made up almost entirely of Northerners, upheld the constitutionality of those state laws that required racial segregation in public facilities in its 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, legitimizing them through the "separate but equal" doctrine. Segregation, which began with slavery, continued with Jim Crow laws, with signs used to show blacks where they could legally walk, talk, drink, rest, or eat. For those places that were racially mixed, non-whites had to wait until all white customers were dealt with. Elected in 1912, President Woodrow Wilson ordered segregration throughout the federal government.
Segregation remained intact into the mid-1950s, when many states began to gradually integrate their schools following the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. The early 20th century is a period often referred to as the "nadir of American race relations". While tensions and civil rights violations were most intense in the South, social discrimination affected African Americans in other regions as well. At the national level, the Southern block controlled important committees in Congress, defeated passage of laws against lynching, and exercised considerable power beyond the number of whites in the South.
Characteristics of the post-Reconstruction period:
- Racial segregation. By law, public facilities and government services such as education were divided into separate "white" and "colored" domains. Characteristically, those for colored were underfunded and of inferior quality.
- Disenfranchisement. When white Democrats regained power, they passed laws that made voter registration more restrictive, essentially forcing black voters off the voting rolls. The number of African-American voters dropped dramatically, and they were no longer able to elect representatives. From 1890 to 1908, Southern states of the former Confederacy created constitutions with provisions that disfranchised tens of thousands of African Americans, and U.S. states such as Alabama disenfranchised poor whites as well.
- Exploitation. Increased economic oppression of blacks through the convict lease system, Latinos, and Asians, denial of economic opportunities, and widespread employment discrimination.
- Violence. Individual, police, paramilitary, organizational, and mob racial violence against blacks (and Latinos in the Southwest and Asians in California).
KKK night rally in Chicago
, c. 1920
African Americans and other ethnic minorities rejected this regime. They resisted it in numerous ways and sought better opportunities through lawsuits, new organizations, political redress, and labor organizing (see the African-American civil rights movement (1896–1954)). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. It fought to end race discrimination through litigation, education, and lobbying efforts. Its crowning achievement was its legal victory in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when the Court rejected separate white and colored school systems and, by implication, overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896.
The integration of Southern public libraries involved many of the same characteristics seen in the larger civil rights movement. This includes sit-ins, beatings, and white resistance. For example, in 1963 in the city of Anniston, Alabama, two black ministers were brutally beaten for attempting to integrate the public library. Though there was resistance and violence, the integration of libraries was generally quicker than integration of other public institutions.
Colored Sailors room in World War I
Black veterans of the military after both World Wars pressed for full civil rights and often led activist movements. In 1948, they gained integration in the military under President Harry Truman, who issued Executive Order 9981 to accomplish it. The situation for blacks outside the South was somewhat better (in most states they could vote and have their children educated, though they still faced discrimination in housing and jobs). From 1910 to 1970, African Americans sought better lives by migrating north and west out of the South. Nearly seven million blacks left the South in what was known as the Great Migration. So many people migrated that the demographics of some previously black-majority states changed to white majority (in combination with other developments). The rapid influx of blacks disturbed the racial balance within Northern cities, exacerbating hostility between both black and white Northerners. The Red Summer of 1919 was marked by hundreds of deaths and higher casualties across the U.S. as a result of race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities, such as the Chicago race riot of 1919 and the Omaha race riot of 1919. Stereotypic schemas of Southern blacks were used to attribute issues in urban areas, such as crime and disease, to the presence of African-Americans. Overall, African Americans in Northern cities experienced systemic discrimination in a plethora of aspects of life. Within employment, economic opportunities for blacks were routed to the lowest-status and restrictive in potential mobility. Within the housing market, stronger discriminatory measures were used in correlation to the influx, resulting in a mix of "targeted violence, restrictive covenants, redlining and racial steering".
White tenants seeking to prevent blacks from moving into the housing project
erected this sign, Detroit
Housing segregation was a nationwide problem, persistent well outside the South. Although the federal government had become increasingly involved in mortgage lending and development in the 1930s and 1940s, it did not reject the use of race-restrictive covenants until 1950. Suburbanization was already connected with white flight by this time, a situation perpetuated by real estate agents' continuing discrimination. In particular, from the 1930s to the 1960s the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) issued guidelines that specified that a realtor "should never be instrumental in introducing to a neighborhood a character or property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values in a neighborhood." The result was the creation of all-black ghettos in the North as well as South.
Invigorated by the victory of Brown and frustrated by the lack of immediate practical effect, private citizens increasingly rejected gradualist, legalistic approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation. They were faced with "massive resistance" in the South by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, African-American activists adopted a combined strategy of direct action, nonviolence, nonviolent resistance, and many events described as civil disobedience, giving rise to the civil rights movement of 1954 to 1968.