Why did the federal government eventually decide to advance the civil rights agenda?
The progress of civil rights in the United States has been far from linear. In 1856, the Supreme Court
Dred Scott v. Sandford
that blacks, whether slaves or not, could never be recognised as citizens
of the state, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. Within 150
years, the situation has been completely reversed; the Supreme Court no longer deals with issues
relating to discriminatory practices against blacks, but rather faces questions on the constitutionality
of affirmative action.
Following the end of the Civil War, the XIII, XIV and XV amendments abolished slavery, defined
citizenship and granted all citizens equal rights and protections, and enfranchised all citizens
respectively. However, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, and the federal army withdrew from the
South, civil rights took a turn for the worse.
The Republican Party had traditionally been the main advocate of black rights, perhaps in part for
ideological reasons, but mainly for the partisan reason that blacks tended overwhelmingly to vote
Republican. However, by the 1890s, the Republicans were less inclined to be the torchbearers, on the
national stage, for black rights. This change occurred as a result of three factors; firstly, the Party
accepted that its efforts to create a viable Southern core of voters, comprised of different races, had
failed. It was clear that its support in the south would not be sufficient to ensure successful election
campaigns. Secondly, the electoral dividends for northern politicians criticising in Congress the actions
of the southern whites had declined. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, massive electoral
successes in Congress in 1894 and in the Presidential elections of 1896, with support coming from
many different parts of the country, meant that the GOP no longer had to rely on southern black votes.
The Supreme Court also contributed to the discrimination felt by blacks from the 1890s onwards. In
Plessy v. Fergusson
, the Supreme Court ruled that railroad, and as such other, segregation was
constitutionally permissible under the XIV amendment, under the term of “separate but equal”. Blacks
were disfranchised throughout the southern states, but this was enacted through the imposition of
often impossible literary tests and the introduction of a poll tax, rather than through law which would
have been constitutionally at odds with the XV amendment. The Court of the era, now described as