Segregation and Desegregation: America’s History of Racial Division and Integration

History of Segregation and Desegregation in America

American society is more diverse than ever, but many public schools remain segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Learn about the history of segregation and desegregation in America.

The Supreme Court strikes down a law requiring white and black students to attend separate schools. The decision inspires many northerners to support the effort to integrate public education.

History of Segregation in the U.S.

Since slavery ended in the United States, facilities like housing, schools and transportation have been systematically separated based on race. Even after the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson allowed segregation so long as the facilities were “separate but equal,” segregation was often enforced by explicit discrimination such as Jim Crow laws, and implicit discrimination in the form of local customs, housing market segregation, private housing covenants and municipal ordinances.

During the early 20th century, when millions of African Americans moved to industrial cities, they were constrained to certain neighborhoods by racial covenants and municipal zoning ordinances. These laws, along with income differences and private discrimination on the part of realtors and banks, shaped the pattern of black-white dissimilarity in urban America (Massey and Denton 1993). The dissimilarity that resulted was also evident at the regional level, as cities were often dominated by one racial group or another. The dissimilarity in rural areas was less pronounced because of the natural separation of populations based on geography.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

In 1954 the Supreme Court overturned Plessy and struck down the legal basis for segregation in schools by ruling that laws requiring segregated education deny black students the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The decision in Brown prompted protests by schoolchildren and sparked a civil rights movement that grew to encompass broader social issues.

The case stemmed from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) petition to enroll Linda Brown, a little girl in Topeka, Kansas, in a white public school closer to her home. She was denied entrance by the school board, which based its decision on the family’s race.

Attorney Thurgood Marshall, pictured above, was the lead counsel for the NAACP’s legal defense fund in the case. He was joined by George E. C. Hayes, the attorney for plaintiff Briggs, and James Nabrit, who represented the Bolling family. The Court ruled unanimously that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” and therefore violate the constitution’s guarantee of equality under law. The decision did not spell out a plan for desegregation, but did require that states comply with the ruling “with all deliberate speed.”

Military Desegregation

The end of segregation in the military was a reflection of the country’s readiness for change. While Black soldiers, sailors and airmen had served valorously in every conflict since the American Revolution, their service was often limited due to bigotry, discrimination and segregation.

The military desegregation movement gained momentum following World War II. As African American enlistment numbers grew, the Army was forced to reassess its racial policy and integrate units. A 1946 review board, chaired by Gen. Alvan Gillem, advised that the military should “eliminate, at the earliest practicable moment, any special consideration based upon race.”

The Army agreed to implement the committee’s recommendations and eventually integrated all training units in the United States. Combat units in Europe took longer to integrate, but by the end of the Korean War, all the last remaining segregated Army units were dissolved. The Army also abolished its quota on Black recruits and began to recruit based solely on qualifications.

Civil Rights Movement

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, African Americans had long fought for freedom around the world, but found that they were denied it at home by discrimination, segregation and violence. The Civil Rights Movement was born out of that need and desire.

Activists like Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall led the struggle against second class citizenship for blacks. They utilized a variety of tactics including protest marches, sit-ins, boycotts and “freedom rides.” Those involved often found themselves facing harassment, beatings, arrest and even death.

The movement accelerated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Eventually, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce a court order that integrated schools. The movement eventually brought about open housing laws, the enactment of several Civil Rights Acts and a greater number of elected African American officials. It also resulted in a lessening of racial violence and segregation in the military and police departments.

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