How the Civil Rights Movement Worked

Jim Crow Laws

Rex Theatre, segregation Rex Theatre, segregation
Men stand by the segregated Rex Theatre in Leland, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

On July 9, 1868, a little more than two years after General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army surrendered to the Union at Appomattox, Va., the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. The amendment read in part that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of laws." In the aftermath of the American Civil War, its writers designed the 14th Amendment to give citizenship to recently freed slaves from the South and protect their civil liberties.

Most Southern states refused to ratify the amendment, and a series of Reconstruction Acts put the former Confederacy under military rule for a short time. The acts split the South into five districts and required the military to oversee elections and make sure the states upheld universal male suffrage (the right for every man to vote). Soon after the South returned to the Union in 1870, however, the broad definition of citizenship drawn out in the 14th Amendment was largely ignored.

From the 1870s to the end of the 19th century, southern states reinforced a system of white supremacy by legally segregating blacks from whites using legislation. These laws became known as Jim Crow laws. They imposed mainly three things:

  • The separation of races in public places, including public schools, parks, accommodations and transportation
  • The disenfranchisement (taking away the right to vote) of adult black males through polling taxes, literacy tests and other tricks
  • The banning of miscegenation, or interracial marriage

On top of this, a culture of brutality and terrorism further separated blacks from whites. Vicious, ritual mob violence known as lynching was carried out against southern blacks well into the 20th century, usually by organized white supremacist movements like the Ku Klux Klan. All-white juries regularly acquitted anyone accused of committing such a crime.

Several court decisions made sure these segregation laws stayed in place or gave states a chance to enforce new ones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional in 1883, for instance, and said that the 14th Amendment didn't protect blacks from discrimination by businesses and individuals. One of the most famous cases, Plessy v. Ferguson, helped to cement this logic in 1896. By 1890, Louisiana law had officially forced blacks to ride in segregated railcars. To test out whether or not the government would protect blacks under the 14th Amendment, a light-skinned African-American named Homer Plessy boarded a car designated for whites on the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy, one-eighth black, was promptly arrested. After a local judge decided Plessy was guilty, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision, declaring that "separate but equal" accommodations in something like a railcar didn't infringe on a person's 14th-Amendment rights.

This essentially gave states the right to enforce harsh Jim Crow laws. The view of blacks as "separate but equal" was deeply ingrained into both southern and northern cultures by the early 20th century, and the unequal treatment blacks experienced would eventually set the civil rights movement into motion.