Segregation is separating an individual on the basis of a characteristic or trait. Within the United States, segregation has often been based on racial classification. Segregation has been imposed by legal and governmental action, known as de jure segregation, and by habit or custom, or de facto. Although most de jure segregation has been eliminated by government action in promoting civil rights for racial minorities, de facto segregation is still prevalent in today’s society.
The practice of segregation in the United States can be dated back to the colonial period and, after the American revolution, was prevalent in both the North and the South. Both sides of the Mason–Dixon line had de facto and de jure segregation in numerous areas of life, from barring blacks from entering hotels, inns, and restaurants to requiring blacks to sit in reserved sections of theaters and worship in designated pews in white churches.
In addition to restrictions on everyday venues, many northern schools frequently segregated their classrooms on the basis of race, sometimes within the same school building. For example, the state of Ohio, from its inception to 1848, excluded all nonwhite children from their public school systems. This prompted many blacks, along with whites, who were sympathetic to educational opportunities for black children, to create private schools for black children. This drive for public versus private education lay at the heart of a conflict within the black community, most notably over ‘‘the importance of assimilation into the dominant white culture’’ (Douglas 2005, 19).
In New England, black school children did enroll in public schools, but many were racially separated schools. One notable example was in the Boston school system, where blacks sought a separate school for their children because of prejudice shown by whites, and in 1798, the first all-black school was privately established. After this, other all-black schools were established, and soon the city had separate educational facilities based on race. This system would be challenged by Sarah Roberts and her father, who sought to attend a closer all-white school rather than a school for blacks.
Led by attorney Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist and future U.S. senator, the lawsuit argued that the ‘‘separation of children in the public schools of Boston, on account of color or race, is in the nature of caste, and is a violation of equality.’’ Although the Massachusetts State Supreme Court recognized that separate schools based on color created a system of separation based on people’s prejudices, the court’s majority in Roberts v. City of Boston held that ‘‘this prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.’’ The court denied Roberts’ request to enroll at an all-white school and set a precedent for a future national case that would accept state-sanctioned segregation on the basis of race (Plessy v. Ferguson). Six years later, the state of Massachusetts would overturn the Roberts decision by abolishing, through a legislative act (Mass. Acts 1855, c. 256), the practice of segregated schools.
After the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States, southern states sought to reaffirm a segregated society for blacks and whites through the adoption of ‘‘Black Codes’’ in 1865. In response, Radical Republicans won passage of the Civil War Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Some Republicans, most notably U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, believed that these amendments would prevent discrimination against blacks. To implement these amendments, the Radical Republicans subsequently passed a series of civil rights acts in 1866, 1970, and 1871. The last piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, sought to protect all Americans, regardless of race, from discrimination in all forms of public accommodations, such as theaters, trains, and restaurants. The 1875 act was aimed at both government action and private individuals’ actions; however, the U.S. Supreme Court would later rule (in The Civil Rights Cases of 1883) that Congress had overstepped its power to affect private acts.
During the era of Reconstruction, southern states segregated blacks from whites, most notably in areas of education. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, southern states implemented ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws; Jim Crow was a term from minstrel shows with a character who portrayed an uneducated and inferior black. Both constitutional requirements and statutes required that blacks and whites be kept separated in the schoolhouse, railroad cars, train station waiting areas, residential areas, restrooms, on the job, and even separate entrances on entering some public and private buildings. In North Carolina and Florida, textbooks used in white and black schools had to be kept separated, and some state courtrooms often had two Bibles for witnesses to swear on: one for white and one for black witnesses. Laws also sought to deny the right to vote by blacks through the use of literacy tests, property requirements, educational requirements, and ‘‘understanding clauses.’’ In addition, many nonsouthern states had laws imposing segregation as well, with 22 percent of all Jim Crow laws passed from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Only fifteen states did not have any Jim Crow laws.
Although many of these laws were challenged in court, the Jim Crow era found legal sanction by the U.S. Supreme Court in two notable cases. The first was the 1883 Civil Rights Case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause did not extend to private individuals or organizations that discriminated on the basis of race. This decision overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The second case upheld a Louisiana law mandating separate railroad cars for whites and blacks. In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the court used the logic of the Roberts case to declare that a state law using separate but equal facilities did not violate the federal equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. These cases, along with several other notable cases, gave federal judicial sanction to state laws mandating segregation.
With the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, the blacks organized themselves to fight against Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Early on, the NAACP contested segregation in Buchanan v. Warley, which successfully challenged residential segregation by cities, and Moore v. Dempsey, which overturned a conviction of a black after a trial dominated by a mob. It was during the period of 1890 to 1920 that more than 3,100 Americans, predominately blacks, were murdered by acts of lynching. Along with a focus on preventing or seeking prosecution against those who used lynching as a weapon against blacks, the NAACP established the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1939. Under the leadership of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the LDF attacked the concept of separate but equal, by first suing state and local governments to uphold the concept, then attacked the doctrine as being inherently discriminatory.
Although there were unsuccessful challenges to the principle of ‘‘separate but equal’’ (Gong Lum v. Rice), the LDF did prevail in attacking segregated education, through such cases as Pearson v. Murray, in which the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the University of Maryland’s Law School must grant admission to blacks, and Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, in which the U.S. Supreme Court required the state of Missouri to offer equal legal education to its residents, regardless of race. By first challenging graduate and then postsecondary education, the LDF culminated its challenge of ‘‘separated but equal’’ educational policy in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, in which a unanimous court held that ‘‘separate but equal was inherently unconstitutional.’’
The LDF also challenged segregation in other venues, such as housing. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court held (in Shelley v. Kraemer) that restrictions on who could own private housing violated the Fifteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. That same year, the California Supreme Court struck down a state ban on interracial marriages (Perez v. Lippold ). In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Henderson v. U.S., that separate railroad dining cars violated the Interstate Commerce Act, which made it unlawful for interstate trains to place a passenger in ‘‘undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.’’ Additional cases, such as 1960’s Boynton v. Virginia, held that blacks had a federal legal right to be served without discrimination in an interstate bus terminal’s restaurant.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown ruling, Congress began to attack segregation as well, passing civil rights acts in 1957, 1960, and 1964, a voting rights act in 1965, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act that banned discrimination in housing. These acts, particularly the 1964 civil rights and 1965 voting rights acts, were most effective in eliminating segregation laws in many states because of the pressure of the modern civil rights movement and leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, southern officials, like Alabama’s governor George C. Wallace (who declared in his first inauguration ‘‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever’’) used the issue to rally Southern white conservatives to resist federal attempts to dismantle segregation practices.
In 1971, these federal attacks on segregation practices culminated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that busing could be used as a tool to achieve desegregation. Subsequent court cases, however, began to scale back the impact of judicial challenges to segregation. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, that education is not a fundamental constitutional right under the U.S. Constitution. Later that same year, the Supreme Court ruled that absent intentional discrimination, de facto segregation based on living patterns did not amount to an equal protection violation. Subsequent court action has dealt with such issues as affirmative action in higher education and for federal contracts. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action in the 1978 case of Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, it did not allow the use of quotas in higher education. Most recently, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld affirmative action, which used race as part of an admissions plan within a law school to achieve a diverse student body (Grutter v. Bollinger). However, the same court struck down an affirmative action plan at the undergraduate level where points were awarded on the basis of race in admissions (Gratz v. Bollinger).
It is notably, however, that although de jure segregation has been all but eliminated, de facto segregation is still present within American society. Some argue that the most segregated hour of the week still remains during the Sunday morning church hour, and that residential patterns still indicate separation of the races on the basis of housing. In addition, questions regarding policies such as affirmative action and legislative redistricting using factors such as race indicate that racial classifications are still present in American society.
J. MICHAEL BITZER
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited