American Civil Rights Movement: The Segregation System


Figure 1.--Segregation systems in the southern states involved setting up a wide range of separate public services. Here we see the colored water fountain on the grounds of the county court house in Halifax, North Carolina in April 1938. Source: Farm Security Administration, LC-USF-33-112-ML.

The Supreme Court countenced segreagation in the Plessy vs. Fergusson decission (1898) and a system of racial aparthaid enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until well after World War II (1939-45). The United States has changes so much since the 1960s, that young people today have no concept of the dimensions and complexity of the segregation system. There was no one segregation system because the segregation laws were state laws. Thus there were several different systems with differences which existed in each state. The system was not confined to the South. The mid-western state of Kansas, for example, had seggregated schools. The system was, however, most entrenched in the 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy. This was not a system enforced by genteel discrimination and social attitudes. It was enforced by laws. the courts, and the police. And to ensure that blacks did not attempt to assert their rights, there was a pervasive system of extra-legal terror conducted by the Klu Klux Klan, which in many cases, was a part of the local police structure. While there were differences from state to state, the primary purpose in each state was marginalize a group of Americans on the basis of race. The system as sanction by the Supreme Court in Plessy was based on the principle of "separate, but equal". But as administered in every Southern states was to ensure black people were given inferior servives and denied basic civil rights.

Plessy vs Fergusson (1898)

The Supreme Court countenced segreagation in the Plessy vs. Fergusson decission (1898) and a system of racial aparthaid enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until well after World War II (1939-45). Plessy established the legal doctine of separate, but equal. This was the only legal way of supportinmg segregation because the 14th Amendment had guaranteed "equal protection" under thelaw for all Americans.

Jim Crow

The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. State Governments enactted what became known as Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was an a popular antebellum minstrel show character. The gains achieved by blacks during Reconstruction were gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and prevented them from voting in any significant numbers. They were no longer slaves and this in essential was a substantial imprvoment, in many ways--not the least in freedom of movement and stability of family relatinships. They were, however, denined basic civil rights and as a result any substatial economic opportunity.

The System

The United States has changes so much since the 1960s, that young people today have no concept of the dimensions and complexity of the segregation system.

State systems

There was no one segregation system because the segregation laws were state laws. Thus there were several different systems with differences which existed in each state. The system was not confined to the South. The mid-western state of Kansas, for example, had seggregated schools. The system was, however, most entrenched in the 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy.

Enforcement

This was not a system enforced by genteel discrimination and social attitudes. It was enforced by laws. the courts, and the police. And to ensure that blacks did not attempt to assert their rights, there was a pervasive system of extra-legal terror conducted by the Klu Klux Klan, which in many cases, was a part of the local police structure.

Purpose

While there were differences from state to state, the primary purpose in each state was marginalize a group of Americans on the basis of race. The system as sanction by the Supreme Court in Plessy was based on the principle of "separate, but equal". But as administered in every Southern states was to ensure black people were given inferior services and denied basic civil rights.

Humiliation

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, there was no pretense of offering equal facilities. The system was used to humiliate and and support the doctrine that white people were superior. A typical Mississippi newspaper editorial proclaimed, for example, "If every negro [in the state] was a graduate of Harvard and had been elected class orator, he would not be as well fitted to exercise the rights of sufferage as the Anglo-Saxon farm laborer." [Clarion-Ledger] A postmaster in the Mississippi Delta made a practice f crossing out the title of Mr., Mrs., or Miss. on all letters addressed to black patrons, seeking to deny any titles to black peopale. [Slayton]

The Laws

The first aspect of the segregation system that comes to mind when one begins to study the system was how amazingly complex it was.

The Work Place

Laws about the workplace varried. Textiles were a major industry in South Carolina. The South Carolina legislature passed laws establishing workplace facilities in the textile mills to the smallest detail. Mill operators were prohinitted from allowing workers of different races from working in the same room or using the same entarnaces. There had to be separate stairways, pay windows, and bathrooms. No socializing was allowed. There had to be separate water fountasins, drinking pails, dippers and or cups. These laws varied greatly from state to state. Several other Southern states had laws that were comparable to South Carolina. Moving north the code was often somewhat more relaxed. While these laws were primarily passed in the South, they were not unknown in other states as well. Many companies only hired White or hired blacks for only the most menial possitions--often ones where it was difficult to recruit Whites. As a result in the deep South states, most Blacks could only find jobs as agricultural laborers.

Schools

The slave codes passed by Southern states varied from state to state. Most made it illegal to teach a slave to read and write. They were variously enforced. A few kind hearted owners did so anyway. Other owners did so because educated slaves were more valuable. These were, however, isolated incidents. At the time of emancipation the vast majority of the slaves in the South were illiterate. The Freedman's Bureau set up schools to educate the freed slaves. There were blacks in the North, but a very small proportion of the population. The situatuon in the North varied over time. Some communities excluded blacks from public schools, overtime blacks were admitted although the time frame varied from state to state. Even after emancipation, some states northern and western states still excluded black children. In the South there was a very limited public school system before the Civil War. As public school systems were established following the Civil War, sparated systems were set up for black children. Segregation did not only involve separating black children, but they were the primary target. Nor did segration only occur in the South, although this is wear the vast majority of segregated schools existed. These schools were poorly funded and the facilities abd equipment were far below the standards of he white schools. In most states, black school children got the used books rejected by the white schools. North Carolina and Florida actually seggregated school books. Florida schools had separate depositories for white and black school books. There were costs associated with running two school systems. White children were often bussed. Black children normally had to walk. After World war II, several southern states began improving the black schools, realizing that they were vulnerable to legal challenge because they were so obviously inferior.

Government Services

Goverment services beyond schools were separated in southern states. There were separate prisons and facilities for the elderly, poor, orphans, mentally ill, and even the blind.

Recreational facilities

Public recreational facilities were also segregated. Here the approach varied state by state and locally. Parks were either fully segegrated or divided into black and white sections. There were black abd white state poaeks. The approach to city parks varied. Often there were black and white ben ches and drinking fountains. Swimming pools were often for whites only or in some days blacks were allowed to use them on a separate days, often the day before the water was changed.

Transportation

The type of conveyance affected the system. Trains within the South had special cars for blacks. Generally busses were segregated by having blacks sit in the back. The approach to transportation also varied from state to state and even by municipalities. In Washington D.C., for example the schools were segregated, but the streetcars and busses were not. In the southern states, municipal busses generally were segregated. Blacks had to sit the back. There were variations from city to city. In Montgomery Alabama there were three inconscipuously marked sections of every bus. White sat in the front and blacks sat in the back. There was a third middle section. Is few whites were on the bus then blacks could sit in the center section. One ce the white section filled up, however, all the blacks in the center section had to get up and stand in the back.

Public Accomodations

Oklahoma law required that there be separate phone booths for black and white customers.

Civil Rights


Reader Comments

A reader from Misissippi writes, "Why are you dreging all of this up? This is all past. It's better forgotten." Well what you are really saying is do away with history, at least an honest assessment of history. This is of course what the Soviets did. The KGB would go into libraries and got out articles and photographs from old newspapers. Our idea is that there is value in history and in the honest investigation of our past. I find the readers attitude interesting. It is an opinion that is widely held in the South, but no longer universally. I used to live in both Alabama and Mississppi. Many of the people I knew shared this attitude, but interestingly they were often interested in history--in many cases Civil War history. My general impression is southeners love their hstory. Many of my friends would have been offened if I would have criticized them for dreging up Stonewall Jackson and Robert E, Lee. And of course the issue of flkying the Confederate flag at courthouses and state legislatures is still a controversial issue. Many are outraged that their heritage is being disregarded when the display of the Confederate flag is restricted.

Sources

Slayton, Robert A. "When integration was a crime," Washington Post, December 18, 2002, p. A35.

Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi's leading nmewspaper, cited by Slayton.






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Created: January 3, 2003
Last updated: 3:52 AM 3/28/2007