Segregation assumed its special form in the United States after the Southern states were defeated in the Civil War and slavery was abolished. Black codes that restricted the rights of the newly freed slaves were enacted in the South in 1865–66. These were abolished during Reconstruction, but after Reconstruction white dominance was thoroughly reestablished in the South, partly by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, but more by the persistence of social custom.
African Americans were prevented from voting by devices such as the poll tax and unfair literacy tests and by intimidation. They were denied any equal share in community life. Toward the end of the 19th cent. segregation laws—the Jim Crow laws—were enacted to codify white dominance. Blacks were forced to attend separate schools and colleges, to occupy special sections in railway cars and buses, and to use separate public facilities; they were forbidden to sit with whites in most places of public amusement. These laws were upheld as regards railroad facilities by the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the so-called separate but equal accommodation. The period 1900 to 1920 brought full extension of segregation to all public transportation and education facilities, even hospitals, churches, and jails.
The tide of opposition across the nation began to rise just before World War II and was given impetus by the activities of civil-rights organizations. African Americans, enjoying a somewhat improved economic status, were in the 1930s more assertive of their rights. General opinion may have been influenced by the paradox of a nation urging war for democracy overseas while at the same time tolerating discrimination at home.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued a directive calling for an end to segregation in the armed forces. The Supreme Court had also begun to move away from the earlier opinions and toward a principle of racial equality. The court struck down state enforcement of restrictive covenants as well as racial barriers leading to unequal treatment in state professional schools and in interstate transportation. In these rulings, however, the court still ruled only on whether facilities provided for blacks and whites were equal, and not on whether the separation of the races itself was unconstitutional.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.