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Legalizing Discrimination in Post-Civil War America

After the Civil War, reconstruction failed to give blacks equal rights, and a conservative U.S. Supreme Court ensured the failure would last another 50 or 60 years.

In 1883, the Court ruled the federal government had no right to interfere with discrimination by private enterprises or individuals. In 1896, in a case called Plessy v. Ferguson, it decided states had the right to legally segregate public facilities, from schools to trains. And in 1899, the Court ruled that states could erect schools for white kids only, even if there were no schools for blacks.

Encouraged by the decisions, Southern states passed what were called Jim Crow laws (named after a popular song that depicted African Americans as shiftless children), which not only tried to completely separate the races, but also take away most of the rights they had been accorded by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Blacks couldn’t serve on juries, represent themselves in court, or drink from the same public drinking fountains as whites. If they quit a job, they could be arrested for vagrancy. They also established elaborate tests that black would-be voters had to take to get a ballot. The result was that the level of black voting dropped like a boulder off a bridge.

But as if the Jim Crow laws weren’t enough, during the 1890s, the South averaged 130 lynchings a year. They were so commonplace that they were sometimes advertised in advance in newspapers. The North generally shrugged at the Jim Crow laws and ignored the lynchings.

“The Negro’s day is over,” observed Yale Professor William Graham Sumner. “He is out of fashion.”

Even the best-known African American leader of the day was not ready to challenge the injustices. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington had become a schoolteacher, the founder of a major vocational school in Alabama called the Tuskegee Institute, and an eloquent advocate of African Americans improving themselves economically.

To improve their economic situations, Washington urged blacks to “accommodate” whites when it came to demands for segregation, in return for white help in obtaining black schools and economic opportunity. “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest of folly,” he argued.

White America didn’t care much for Chinese immigrants, either. “The Yellow Peril,” many of whom were brought to America to work on the railroads at half the wages paid to white workers, were viewed as a competitive labor threat to American-born workers.

Anti-Chinese riots broke out in San Francisco in 1877. In 1882, Congress passed a law prohibiting all Chinese immigration for ten years. The ban, called the Chinese Exclusion Act, was later extended to last indefinitely, and wasn’t repealed until 1943.

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