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Associated Press

The Civil Rights Era: Discrimination as the Law of the Land

February 12, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
The Civil Rights Movement sought to act against years of legally enforced discrimination in the United States. In part two of a series, findingDulcinea examines the origin, emergence and influence of the so-called "Jim Crow" laws.

Past Rulings

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Two Amendments to the Constitution were intended to lay the groundwork for equal rights. But it was many years before they were fully enforced.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. It was passed in 1865 following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It took another constitutional amendment in 1868 to grant former slaves the same rights and privileges as whites. The 14th Amendment was meant to extend the Bill of Rights to all; unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled for many years that the Amendment had no jurisidiction in state law, even though two chief authors of the amendment argued that it did. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1875

The Bill of Rights ensured equal protection and due process; it said nothing of the “'‘full and equal enjoyment’ of many public facilities,” which was one of the goals of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. As PBS notes in its discussion of the act, it was “rarely enforced.” Its language, attempting to create equal rights in primarily a cultural sense, was vague and included the troubling stipulation that equal “enjoyment” was “subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law,” which could in effect negate the entire act.

The Supreme Court Ruling of 1883

The Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act in 1883, ruling that "the 14th Amendment did not give Congress authority to prevent discrimination by private individuals." The decision effectively "[opened] the door to legalized segregation.” One significant dissenter among the justices, John Harlan, said that the “discrimination” afforded by the ruling was in and of itself “a badge of servitude”: a provocative phrase, because much of the rhetoric of this period tried to emphasize that a previous condition of servitude would not affect the present and future rights of African-Americans.

Jim Crow Laws Prevail

Following the 1883 decision, “Jim Crow” laws began cropping up all over the U.S., but primarily in the South, dominating the lives of African-Americans for decades. The Supreme Court left it up to the states to pass laws of equality or discrimination. One of the most widely discussed examples is Louisiana’s “separate but equal accommodations” law. Challenged by Homer Plessy, a person of mixed race who took a seat in the white car of a train and was subsequently arrested, this segregation law was upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Once again, Justice Harlan dissented, saying the Louisiana law was “hostile to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution of the United States.” The case left the door open to widespread segregation in schools, jobs, transportation, and other “public and semipublic facilities.”

Several more historic cases arose before 1960, many of which analyzed the meaning of the 13th Amendment in situations of employment and labor, as well as in military terms; for example, in the military drafts of both World Wars. But more often than not, when an issue, such as peonage and sharecropping, was brought to court with the 13th Amendment in its defense, the Amendment was considered too narrow to be applicable.
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