Featured Essay - African Americans and Civil Rights: Remembering Segregation

After World War II civil rights goals seemed easy to identify and solutions appeared obvious though difficult to achieve. In 1940 about 70 percent of all blacks lived in the fifteen former slave states plus Oklahoma and West Virginia; blacks in these states faced segregation everywhere, from birth in a separate hospital to burial in a segregated cemetery.

In 1947 the Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights noted that it was "generally illegal for Negroes to attend the same schools as whites; attend theaters patronized by whites; visit parks where whites relax; eat, sleep, or meet in hotels, restaurants, or public halls frequented by whites." This list was "only a partial enumeration" of the "highly refined" system of statutorily mandated discrimination that cut "across the daily lives of southern citizens from the cradle to the grave." It was a system that "brand[ed] the Negro with the mark of inferiority and assert[ed] that he [was] not fit to associate with white people."

Southern states segregated homes for the aged, orphanages, institutions for juvenile delinquents, and all educational institutions. Southern blacks with a hearing problem, a mental illness, or tuberculosis went to segregated institutions. Ironically, even southern state schools for the blind were segregated. Louisiana required not merely that buildings to house and educate black and white blind children be separate, but that they be located on separate grounds. While all of these institutions were in theory "separate but equal," in practice they were never equal. No matter how bad conditions might have been for whites, they were invariably worse for blacks.

As the South industrialized, segregation led to further economic marginalization for blacks. South Carolina law provided that no textile manufacturers could allow members of "different races to labor and work together within the same room, or to use the same doors of entrance and exit at the same time, or to use and occupy the same pay windows or doors for paying off its operatives and laborers at the same time, or to use the same stairway and windows at the same time, or to use at any time the same lavatories, toilets, drinking water buckets, pails, cups, dippers or glasses."

Other states had similar rules. In Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, mines were required to separate shower facilities and clothing lockers. These laws did more than just humiliate black workers and remind them of their inferior legal status. The laws also prevented them from advancing in their jobs or getting jobs in the first place. Separate facilities for blacks meant that factory owners had to invest more money if they chose to hire blacks. Thus, it often made greater economic sense simply to leave blacks outside of the growing industrial job market.

Everywhere in the south drinking fountains, restrooms, elevators, motels, hotels, elevators, bars, restaurants, and lunch counters were separate, but almost never equal. At theaters African Americans sat in separate sections at the back or in the balcony. Trains had separate cars for blacks, and buses reserved the last few rows for blacks, always keeping them, symbolically and literally, at the back of the bus. Taxis served whites or blacks, not both. Waiting rooms at bus stations, train stations, and airports were separate. Florida required that railroads also provide separate ticket windows for black travelers.

Segregation pervaded southern life. Louisiana required separate ticket windows and entrances at circuses and tent shows with the ticket offices at least twenty-five feet apart. North Carolina banned interracial meetings of fraternal orders, while many places followed Birmingham's segregation of "any room, hall, theatre, picture house, auditorium, yard, court, ball park, public park, or other indoor or outdoor place." Georgia segregated billiard rooms and poolrooms, Texas prohibited interracial boxing, while Missouri, South Carolina, and Oklahoma segregated public parks and playgrounds. Oklahoma provided for "segregation of the white and colored races as to the exercise of rights of fishing, boating and bathing" as well as "to the exercises [sic] of recreational rights" at parks, playgrounds, and pools. The state authorized the public service commission "to require telephone companies... to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons." Even the sacred was not protected from Jim Crow. Most churches were voluntarily segregated, but Tennessee banned interracial worship. Texas and North Carolina segregated their public libraries by statute, while other places did so by custom. Georgia never seemed to tire of finding things to segregate, and thus in its 1937–1938 legislative session, lawmakers provided that the names of white and black taxpayers be entered separately in the tax digest. Similarly, Florida stored textbooks from black and white schools in different buildings.

African Americans were shut out of the voting booths and the jury boxes in most southern states. Police departments were almost entirely white, and in those few cities where African Americans were on the force, they were usually not allowed to arrest whites.

After World War II blacks and their white allies began a campaign to end segregation in America. The fight took place in the courts, the legislatures, and the streets. The struggle began in earnest as veterans returned from a war against fascism and racial oppression abroad to confront the lack of democracy and pervasive racial oppression at home.

Paul Finkelman is Chapman Distinguished Professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law and is Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895 (Oxford, 2006) and the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present (Oxford, forthcoming)