The Civil Rights Movement against Racial Segregation


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The civil rights movement was a byproduct of a compromise that framers of the U.S. Constitution accepted, condoning the inhumane practice of slavery as an institution in exchange for states agreeing to form a union. The movement tried to rectify the injustices and brought about equality among races through government action.

Black and white hold hands together to show unity.
The equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment is seen as a Constitutional guarantee against discrimination. (Image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock)

The Three Amendments to the Constitution

When the Civil War ended in 1865, three amendments to the Constitution were soon adopted: the 13th Amendment in 1865, the 14th Amendment in 1868, and the 15th Amendment in 1870. 

The 13th Amendment abolished the practice of slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to former slaves and included a Constitutional guarantee that they should be equally protected under the law. The 15th Amendment granted African-Americans the right to vote, excluding women.

The equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment is of more importance because it is seen as a Constitutional guarantee against discrimination. Practically every civil rights case that has ever been adjudicated cites the
14th Amendment as the legal basis for civil rights protections.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Discrimination in the Name of Equality

The government’s goal in the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment was to make sure laws were applied fairly to all people. But every law did not treat every person equally. The courts had different legal standards for different people and acted discriminatory against blacks. 

When resources are distributed equally it does not always create fair outcomes because people are not equal in terms of their needs. The point of public policy that aims at equal protection under the law is for all people to be treated fairly, very different from treating everyone exactly the same.

Learn more about the background to emancipation.

The Reconstruction of the United States

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States entered a period known as Reconstruction, beginning with the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In the immediate post-war period, life for former slaves in the American South improved. 

Through the 1870s-1880s, many African-Americans registered to vote and participated in elections. But it wasn’t long before Southern states pushed back against these civil rights advances by instituting Jim Crow laws. Under these abusive policies, states enshrined racial segregation and other forms of discrimination in their state constitutions and statutes.

The Jim Crow Era in America

During the era of Jim Crow in the American South, which lasted from the late 1870s until the mid-1960s, African-Americans experienced extreme discrimination and considerable violence. In this nearly eight decade period, the injustices and inequalities of everyday life for African-Americans in the South was brutal, with lynchings a common occurrence. 

A critical juncture occurred in 1896, when the Supreme Court decided the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court ruled that separate railway cars for whites and blacks were permissible, as long as the cars were equal in facilities.

According to the “separate but equal” clause, states and cities instituted laws that prevented direct contact between blacks and whites, segregated lunch counters, bus stations, drinking fountains, and even bathrooms. These segregation laws and efforts to promote racial discrimination were largely aimed at dehumanizing African-Americans.

Hence, even though slavery had officially ended, African-Americans were prevented from owning property, escaping poverty, attaining education and training and participating as equal citizens in American democracy. The ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson ensured the survival of Jim Crow laws for over a half-century.

Was America an Exemplary Democracy?

An African-American boy speaking on megaphone against racism at a protest.
African-Americans suffered from slavery and segregation for over a century. (Image:

The Jim Crow era and slavery are important and should be understood by all, because a sizable portion of Americans lacked basic civil rights during that era. Therefore, understanding the history of slavery in the United States demonstrates that America wasn’t an exemplary democracy. 

Many scholars define the level of democracy in a country by looking at the proportion of its adult citizens who have the right to vote. In the United States, many African-Americans did not enjoy that basic democratic right until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The American Civil Rights Movement and American Democracy

The American civil rights movement significantly helped to expand democracy and civil rights in America. The movement is a profound example of a successful social movement that aimed to change laws and attitudes for the direct benefit of African-Americans, and the collective benefit of all Americans.

In 1954, the Supreme Court gave a historic verdict in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The ruling overturned the precedent of “separate but equal” that was set in the Plessy case some 60 years earlier. In Brown v. Board, Chief Justice Earl Warren called for an end to legalized racial segregation in public schools.

Learn more about the black men in the Union army.

The End of Segregation by Justice Warren 

Justice Warren made sure that the decision in Brown vs. Board remained unanimous to avoid controversy because it had to carry weight. So, an agreement was made to include the phrasing that the desegregation of schools should happen “with all deliberate speed”, hence, ensuring all nine justices voted yes. However, this gave segregationists leeway to abuse the process and slow walk desegregation. 

After the Supreme Court’s decision, legal segregation—sometimes called de jure segregation—effectively ended in the South. However, the practice of racial segregation—referred to as de facto segregation—persisted. 

As a consequence, Southern segregationists got more and more creative about ways to ensure the norms of racial segregation while trying to follow the letter of law. For example, where states were required to expand voting rights to African-Americans, states instituted literacy tests and other restrictions on voting rights that effectively prevented many African-Americans from voting.

The Strategy of Outsider Politics

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped to form organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

The historical record is filled with examples of public protests, marches, civil disobedience, and organized efforts to draw attention to continued racial inequalities in the South. This type of political action is called “outsider politics,” because it is driven by citizens, not political elites. 

The purpose of this action is to bring public attention to some issue in an effort to get democratically elected representatives to change policies. The civil rights movement was largely successful at using this strategy.

Common Questions about the Civil Rights Movement against Racial Segregation

Q: What did the American government introduce the 14th Amendment to the Constitution?

The 14th Amendment was adopted by the American Constitution to grant African-Americans civil rights and give legal protections to them.

Q: What was the main objective of the American civil rights movement?

The main objective of the American civil rights movement was to change the laws for the benefit of all Americans, especially African-Americans.

Q: What historic verdict was given by the Supreme Court in 1954?

In 1954, the Supreme Court gave a historic verdict in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In Brown v. Board, Chief Justice Earl Warren called for an end to legalized racial segregation in public schools.

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