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Author Myrlie Evers-Williams is a trailblazer as an activist for civil rights

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History of Segregation

February 2, 2001
Web posted at: 11:45 AM EST (1645 GMT)

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The history of legally sanctioned discrimination against African Americans in the United States is as old as the country itself. Under the Constitution, not only was slavery permitted, but the federal government offered its own resources to help capture runaway slaves. Blacks were considered as only "three-fifths of a person" for purposes of counting population. It was not until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment (1865) that slavery was finally outlawed. Shortly thereafter, the 14th Amendment (1868), guaranteeing equal protection under the law, was approved. This was followed by the 15th Amendment (1870) which said no citizen could be denied the right to vote because of race or color.

In spite of these Constitutional protections, so-called "Jim Crow" laws flourished throughout the South. Jim Crow laws mandated segregated public and private facilities for whites and blacks. These laws meant that African Americans had to attend separate schools, ride in the back of public busses, drink from separate water fountains, and eat at separate restaurants. Blacks were not allowed to use any public building or property. It was understood that "public" meant "whites only." Blacks could not use the public library, the public swimming pool, the public parks and playgrounds. Blacks could only go to the zoo on certain days at certain times. They were not allowed to work at certain jobs, for example, being bank tellers, or sales clerks in department stores. Blacks were told what kind of clothes to wear. In parts of Mississippi, only teachers and ministers were allowed to wear suits in public during the week. In some places, blacks were told what makes and models of cars to drive. In other places, they were not allowed to have new cars, only used cars. If a white person was walking down the sidewalk, a black person had to get off the sidewalk so the white person could walk by. There were laws which prohibited blacks to look at white people in the eye, and a black person could be sent to jail for "assault (reckless eyeballing)."

Blacks were offered inferior everything - bathrooms, schools, housing - by those in charge. Blacks who sought to challenge the Jim Crow laws, such as Rosa Parks, were arrested or brutalized by whites. Blacks who dared to challenge the rules were lynched by the thousands. Men and women were lynched. Lynchings were public events and white men, women and children went to watch blacks being tortured and burned or hanged. In less extreme cases, blacks who challenged the system could lose their jobs, be put out of their homes or be run out of town. In some cases, Whites literally got away with murder for killing "uppity" blacks. Racist judges and juries made it impossible for blacks to seek redress in Southern courtrooms. Blacks were not allowed to serve on juries or to give testimony in a court of law. Blacks could not testify against whites in court. Blacks could not sue whites.

Key Court Cases

Prior to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court made several key rulings against African Americans. In the Dred Scott case (1857), the Court ruled that slaves had no legal standing to sue because they were not citizens, but rather the private property of their slave owners. After the Civil War, when Southern states sought to reinstate, under names other than slavery, the conditions of subordination and white control, the Supreme Court upheld them in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), the doctrine of separate but equal." This ruling stated that separation of the races was constitutionally legal as long as equal accommodations were made for blacks. However, this allowed the continuation of "separate but unequal" which had existed all along.

Accommodations were far from equal in many parts of the country; for instance, African-American students attended public schools that were completely unequal compared to white schools. Black schools received significantly less funding than white schools; in some cases a school district would spend $50 per pupil in the white schools and $1 per pupil in the black schools. Black teachers were paid significantly less than white teachers, regardless of qualifications, education or experience. Black schools were given only the books that the white schools threw away. The buildings were often in very poor repair. The black school facilities were often inferior, lacking libraries, gymnasiums, and playing fields. Black schools often did not have indoor plumbing. They had broken equipment and furniture, which had been discarded by white schools. They were not allowed to offer special advanced academic courses to their students. Black students could not use public school busses to get to school.

In addition, in many places, black families were not allowed to send their children to schools for a full school year. In some locations, the black schools were open only a few months of the year. The owner of the plantation where the family sharecropped could tell the parents that "Sammy is old enough to be working in the fields. He doesn't need to go to school anymore," and a ten-year-old would be withdrawn from school to work. Failure to comply meant the family would be driven from their home. Blacks who sought to continue with their education were considered to be "uppity."

The Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Plessy ruling in 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The Court said that the "separate but equal" doctrine violated the 14th Amendment and was thus unconstitutional. But, while the Brown decision should have marked the end of segregated schools, Southern school officials and politicians refused to comply with the ruling. Not eager to challenge the states' authority, the federal government was slow to act. It was not until 1957, when the Governor of Arkansas refused to allow nine African-American students to enroll at Little Rock Central High School, that President Eisenhower was compelled to order federal troops to enforce the Brown decision.

While Little Rock marked the first attempt by the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision, in reality, school systems remained segregated. In some locations, whites simply closed down the public school system and created "private, whites-only academies" in their place. In other places, they drastically reduced the amount of money available to the public schools after they created the white academies, leaving the black schools as impoverished as before.

Voting Rights

Further, African Americans were still being denied their constitutional right to vote. Through such tactics as the poll tax and the literacy test, African-Americans who tried to register to vote were turned down. Those who persisted were told in no uncertain terms that their personal safety and livelihood depended on staying away from the registrar's office.

In 1965, a peaceful, nonviolent civil rights march in Selma, Alabama was broken up by police. Using tear gas and horses, the police attacked and beat the unarmed marchers. Shortly thereafter, the United States Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which was the first significant federal protection of African-American voting rights since the 15th Amendment, nearly a hundred years previous. The act eliminated voter literacy tests and enabled federal examiners to register voters. The 24th Amendment (1964) approved a year earlier had eliminated the poll tax in federal elections. Other constitutional amendments which expanded the voting rights of Americans were the 19th Amendment (1920), which granted women the right to vote; the 23rd (1961), which permitted residents of the District of Columbia to vote for President and Vice-President; and the 26th (1971), which extended the right to vote to eighteen-year-olds.

Protest Groups and Methods

One Goal, Many Roads

The Civil Rights Movement was not the province of one man or one group. The battle to achieve equal rights for African Americans and destroy the structure of segregation was fought on many fronts by a myriad of organizations and protest groups. Sometimes, these groups coordinated their actions and other times they acted quite independently of each other. While the goals were generally consistent, the means of achieving those goals, the philosophies underlying the strategies, and the attitudes toward the pace of change often exposed severe differences of opinion.


Perhaps the most mainstream civil rights organization, and certainly one of the oldest, is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909 to achieve, "through peaceful and lawful means," equal citizenship rights for all Americans. Through its Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP challenged thousands of discriminatory laws throughout the country. It achieved its most prominent success in winning the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case. Roy Wilkins led the NAACP during the civil rights years.


In 1942, civil rights leader James Farmer founded an interracial organization called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to confront urban segregation in the North. That same year, CORE staged its first sit-in at a segregated Chicago restaurant. In later years, CORE turned its attention to the South. In 1961, CORE sponsored the "Freedom Rides" that attempted to desegregate southern bus terminals. CORE adhered to nonviolence both as a tactic and a philosophy.


Another group advocating nonviolence, which was formed in 1957, in the wake of the successful Montgomery bus boycott, was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Ministers from eleven southern states meeting at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta decided that they needed to establish a formal organization to continue the struggle for civil rights. They intentionally chose a name which they felt was non-threatening to whites, and they chose a leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitment to nonviolence was based as much on his personal philosophy as it was on tactics. Rev. King led the group from its inception until his death in 1968.


The first sit-ins at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee sent shockwaves through the Civil Rights Movement and led directly to a new organization. In April 1960, in response to the sit-ins, the SCLC called a meeting of student leaders in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rather than become a part of SCLC, however, the student leaders decided to form their own organization. Co-founder Chuck McDew explains the reasons:

"Some people were totally committed to nonviolence; some people saw it strictly as a tactic to be used. And since we couldn't come to an agreement on that, we decided not to join the SCLC. And instead, we decided to create an organization of our own. That organization we called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which came to be known as SNCC."

Perhaps the most confrontational of all civil rights organizations up to this point, SNCC refused to shy away from even the most virulently racist parts of the rural South. According to McDew, "The philosophy of SNCC was that we would take on segregation wherever it existed. And we would do that in a nonviolent fashion. We were going to breakdown the traditions and the laws of separating the races." The consequences of SNCC's willingness to go anywhere to confront segregation were swift and violent. McDew's own experience confirms this: "There were few demonstrations that did not become violent. If you went to a library and you were black, it was fair and realistic to assume somebody was going to hit you as a result of that. And it generally happened. If you went to a bus station or a zoo, your very presence, by being black, was going to create a violent reaction. I was beaten many times. Jaw broken. Teeth pulled out in jail. That was par for the course. There was no such thing as a nonviolent nonviolent demonstration."

Reprint permission granted by the Detroit Newspapers in Education. Materials were originally published as a Newspaper In Education section "African American Culture." These materials were commissioned from Hot Topics Publications, Inc.

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