Civil Rights in the United States

Civil Rights and African Americans

Post–Civil War constitutional amendments abolished slavery, extended citizenship to African Americans, and established that race could not be the basis for denying a person the right to vote, but segregation laws passed subsequently, throughout the South in particular, undermined some of these protections.

The end of the American Civil War in 1865 brought a period called Reconstruction (1865–77), during which three amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution that extended rights to African Americans. The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, declares that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." It also says that states may not deny to any person "the equal protection of the laws." The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, establishes that the right to vote cannot be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

These constitutional protections proved inadequate to ensure the civil rights of African Americans. After Reconstruction ended following the disputed presidential election of 1876, white supremacists regained control of city and state governments in the South. They enacted Jim Crow laws, legislation passed in the 1890s and later that imposed racial segregation and deprived African Americans of civil rights. The name Jim Crow comes from a stereotypical African American figure in stage entertainment of the time. Racial segregation established by law and government policy like this is called de jure segregation. These discriminatory laws were given a boost by Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that determined segregation laws for public facilities were legal as long as white people and black people were provided facilities of equal value.

The 15th Amendment was also weakened as Southern states moved to deprive African Americans of voting rights. Some of these laws required potential voters to pass a literacy test. The tests, unfairly applied, were used to deny many African Americans their right to vote. States also passed “grandfather clauses” that exempted men who could not pay the poll tax or pass the literacy test from those restrictions if their grandfathers had been allowed to vote. These laws made show that limits on voting applied only to African Americans, not to poor, illiterate whites.

NAACP Challenges to Segregation

The NAACP challenged the constitutionality of segregation in the courts, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted legal challenges against segregation. In several cases, the Supreme Court ruled that state universities or professional schools could not be segregated.

This effort won a major victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined separate but equal public schools actually were not equal and that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The court’s decision in this landmark case was unanimous. This decision paved the way for the integration of public schools, though public school systems across the country resisted the change. Resistance in the South was particularly strong.

Nonviolent Protests and New Civil Rights Laws

Led by Martin Luther King Jr., the African American civil rights movement used nonviolent demonstrations to push the federal government to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The victory in Brown greatly encouraged civil rights groups. The resulting effort by many different groups to achieve equal political and social rights for African Americans is called the civil rights movement.

In 1955 African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, began a boycott of the city's segregated buses. The boycott was led by minister Martin Luther King Jr. For more than a year, African Americans walked, carpooled, and otherwise refused to ride the city's buses. In late 1956 the Supreme Court held that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional.

Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from the Montgomery bus boycott as the central figure in the civil rights movement. Civil rights groups organized marches and demonstrations demanding an end to segregation and the protection of voting rights. Peaceful marchers were often attacked by police, sprayed with fire hoses, and arrested. In the summer of 1963, many groups joined in the massive March on Washington, which demanded an end to racial discrimination and the passage of a federal civil rights law. During the event, King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, envisioning a day when all people will be treated equally.
In August 1963 more than 200,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to push for equal rights for African Americans.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 542010 (Scherman, Rowland)
The peaceful demonstrations—and the harsh response of Southern white people, including state and local officials—increased public support for the movement. Under an intense push by President Lyndon B. Johnson—in the face of equally intense opposition by Southerners—Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that banned racial segregation in voting, public facilities, public schools, federally assisted programs, and employment and strengthened federal authority to enforce its provisions.

Major Provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Area of Focus Provisions
Voting rights Banned arbitrary standards for determining voter eligibility
Public accommodations Banned discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other facilities involved in interstate commerce
Public schools Gave the U.S. attorney general the authority to file lawsuits to force the desegregation of public schools
Federally assisted programs Allowed the withholding of federal funds from programs that engage in discrimination, including school systems
Employment Made it illegal to refuse to hire, fire, or otherwise discriminate against a person on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin"

Created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce the ban on employment discrimination
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Gave additional powers to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to investigate civil rights abuses

In the spring of 1965, civil rights activists began a march in Selma, Alabama, to highlight ongoing voting discrimination in that state. The peaceful marchers were attacked by state troopers with clubs, police dogs, and tear gas. Many marchers were hospitalized. The event prompted President Johnson to push for a tough voting rights law. That summer, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal law that outlawed using literacy tests as a qualification for voting and provided federal oversight of elections in states with a history of racial discrimination in elections and voter registration.

Black Militancy

Ongoing issues of poverty, discrimination, and police brutality produced greater militancy and civil unrest.

Meanwhile, other civil rights activists rejected the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr. and many civil rights groups. Mistrust of police departments and cases of police brutality against African Americans helped fuel growing anger. Malcolm X, a member of the Black Muslim church, urged African Americans to push more aggressively for their rights. Later he tempered his language but was assassinated in 1965 by three Black Muslims after he broke with the church. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major civil rights group that had taken part in the marches in Washington and Selma among other actions, splintered as some members pushed for a more militant approach to winning equality. Identifying economic exploitation of African Americans as the key source of inequality, the Black Panther Party arose to launch programs for community development as well as protest police brutality.

The black militancy movement waned, in part as a result of the expansion of a growing number of African Americans who won elective office. They worked within the system to try to achieve social change.

Busing and Affirmative Action

After court decisions and legislation attacked de jure segregation in the 1960s, the African American civil rights movement met more obstacles confronting de facto segregation in education and employment outside the southern United States.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were major legislative achievements in the fight for civil rights. They did not, however, eliminate racial discrimination or inequality. By the late 1960s, civil rights leaders increasingly focused on inequality in job opportunities and education. They also urged action outside the South, where African Americans were subjected to de facto segregation— segregation that results from social norms or traditions. Children attended schools near their homes. Since neighborhoods were highly segregated, so were schools. Responding to lawsuits, federal courts ordered many districts with highly segregated schools to transfer students to schools in other city neighborhoods, a practice commonly called busing. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg that busing to achieve racial integration was constitutional. Later, school systems devised other methods to try to end segregation.

In the mid- to late 1960s, several cities erupted into riots, often when police arrests or other actions sparked anger among the highly frustrated urban poor. Among the worst riots took place in Los Angeles in 1965 and in Newark and Detroit in 1967. Riots also broke out in many cities in early 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. These outbreaks alarmed many white Americans and led many who lived in cities to move to the suburbs, a "white flight" that further segregated metropolitan areas. Efforts to extend busing to encompass metropolitan areas met resistance, and the Supreme Court struck down a busing plan that encompassed Detroit and its suburbs in the decision Milliken v. Bradley (1974).

The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson launched another effort to remedy inequality. This approach, called affirmative action, consisted of policies implemented to redress past discrimination and inequality by giving opportunities to unfairly treated minorities, in this case African Americans. Executive orders and federal policies established rules that required companies, schools, and other organizations that received federal funds to use affirmative action to hire African Americans. Later, these policies were expanded to include other minority groups and women.

The policy sparked critics to charge that affirmative action amounted to unfair preferential treatment and a form of reverse discrimination. Allan Bakke, a white male student who was denied admission to the medical school at the University of California-Davis, sued. He argued that he was unfairly denied admission when minority students with test scores and grade point averages lower than his were admitted. In 1978 the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that the university had violated Bakke's rights. The Court said that colleges and universities can consider race as one factor in admissions but that race could not be an overriding factor. In addition, the court banned setting a racial quota—the policy under which a certain number of slots for members of a particular group—in admissions decisions. Later decisions provided further guidance. In Gratz v. Bollinger (2003),the court ruled that the University of Michigan's admission policy was not written narrowly enough to protect white applicants from discrimination. In Grutter v. Bollinger, also in 2003, the court ruled that the University of Michigan's Law School admission policy was sufficiently narrow to allow consideration of race as one factor among others, making it constitutional. A 2016 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin upheld another admissions policy that used race as one factor among others.

African Americans in the Early 21st Century

Despite gains, African Americans continued to experience deep inequalities, and the Black Lives Matter movement arose in the 2010s as a protest against police brutality against African Americans.
In the early 21st century, African Americans were in a better position than in the past on some measures. Higher numbers of African Americans attended college and graduate schools than in the past. African Americans were accepted in all professions, and median income of African American households was higher than in the past. Deep inequalities remained, however. Median income was significantly lower for African Americans than for white Americans. The share of African Americans in prison was much higher than their ratio in the population as a whole. Schools, critics said, were as segregated as they had been before Brown v. Board of Education. Police brutality remained a problematic issue, though organized efforts to address it increased in the 2010s. A legacy of racial profiling by police and several police shootings of unarmed African Americans in different cities provoked anger and outrage when those police officers often went unpunished. Because family members, friends, or even bystanders could record these incidents on smartphone cameras and publicize them on social media, these incidents gave momentum to a new movement called Black Lives Matter. Protest marches were held in several cities, and calls for increased scrutiny of police action intensified. While Black Lives Matter gained the support of athletes and entertainers, as well as many other Americans, it also provoked a backlash among others. These critics said that the movement denigrated the police and downplayed the dangers faced by police officers.