How Segregation Ended
Segregation was the practice of separating people based on their race or color. This included everything from racial quotas to segregated neighborhoods and real estate covenants to segregated schools.
It’s also how racist politicians won office and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black communities. But how did segregation end?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
After the end of World War II, many Americans hoped to see an end to segregation in American life. Civil rights advocates pressed their case through organized legal efforts, culminating in two major Supreme Court decisions that struck down state and municipal bus segregation laws.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent a bill to Congress to support civil rights, but it was stalled in the Judiciary Committee due to the dilatory tactics of Southern segregationist senators such as James Eastland of Mississippi. The President’s assassination in November of that year prompted his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to make civil rights legislation a top priority.
The bill that he sent to Congress outlawed racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters, and stores, as well as employment discrimination. It also outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests, and allowed federal officials to oversee elections in districts where the black vote was being disfranchised by local practices. The law’s passage transformed patterns of political power and forever altered the South’s relationship to the Democratic Party.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
After the nonviolent protests of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Congress passed The Voting Rights Act, which provided proactive and concrete protections for voting rights. The act banned many state and local practices that discriminated against Black voters. These included poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and all-white primaries.
The act also required states and localities to receive “preclearance” from the federal government before making any changes that would impact voting rights. This provision was based on a formula to determine whether a state or locality had a history of racial discrimination in voting.
The act was a major victory in the fight for civil and political equality. President Lyndon Johnson called it “a triumph for freedom greater than any ever won on any battlefield.” But the law was not without its flaws. A series of Supreme Court decisions, including Shelby v. Holder, diminished the effectiveness of the act. In addition, violence against African Americans continued, with a particularly devastating wave of lynchings in the early 20th century.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968
After the war, African Americans expected to see progress on civil rights at home. But despite the Supreme Court decisions that made segregation illegal and the efforts of President Kennedy, Black Americans could still be denied the right to vote, barred from public facilities and exposed to violence including lynching.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. But school desegregation proceeded slowly. Many Southern political leaders invoked the tenth amendment, or “states’ rights,” to justify segregation. Activists organized protests, which sometimes turned violent. In 1960, four Black college students staged a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The protests spread to other college campuses.
The Civil Rights Act of 1972
Despite the fact that full equality has not yet been achieved, the Civil Rights Movement did take important steps toward ending segregation in America. Legal segregation as government policy became unconstitutional with the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. But in the years leading up to that decision, cities instituted zoning laws that kept Black families away from white neighborhoods, and racial segregation continued through custom and law (separate buses, trains, water fountains, parks, schools and even residential areas).
In addition, Southern lawmakers who wanted to maintain racial inequality aligned themselves with Northern, Western and national leaders who used new language—like “states rights” and “law and order”—to keep segregation intact. These segregationists fought to undermine the new laws, and their efforts were augmented by members of the Ku Klux Klan who terrorized African Americans. In 1962, James Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, and when federal marshals escorted him to campus in an attempt to enforce integration, rioting erupted. Two people were killed.