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In the first few years following the Civil War, a United States Congress dominated by Radical Republicans sought to build a more egalitarian new legal framework for American society by passing three monumental amendments to the Constitution.
Congress' intent in passing these three "Reconstruction Amendments" was clear—to guarantee African Americans, newly freed from slavery, equal treatment under the law.
But it didn't take long for the federal government to begin to pull back from its vigorous defense of Black rights. In 1873, the Supreme Court ruled in the so-called Slaughterhouse Cases that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection extended only to "privileges and immunities" granted by the federal Constitution, not to those created by individual state laws.
A decade later, the Supreme Court further restricted the 14th Amendment by ruling in Civil Rights Cases that it applied only to discriminatory actions of the government, but not to those of private citizens. So, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had sought to guarantee Blacks equal access to all "inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement," was ruled unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of the 14th Amendment cleared the way for southern states to impose new, discriminatory legal regimes based on segregationist principles.
In 1877, the Union Army ended its military occupation of the defeated old Confederacy. With neither Northern soldiers nor federal judges willing to intervene on their behalf, African Americans soon found themselves under the thumb of Jim Crow. Radical Reconstruction had ended in total failure, its ambitious vision of colorblind democracy relegated to the ash-heap of history for nearly 100 years. Upon the ruins of Reconstruction, Southerners quickly built a new social and legal system designed to ensure white supremacy.
Through the 1870s and 1880s, southern states enacted a series of laws to compel the segregation of white and Black citizens in education, public accommodations, public transport, and even sexual relations. In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed one of those laws—a new statute requiring all railroads to provide separate cars for each race, and banning Blacks from riding in cars reserved for whites (or vice versa).
In New Orleans, African Americans immediately organized in protest. That city's racial hierarchy had long been somewhat less rigid than in the rest of the South, largely due to the longstanding presence in New Orleans of a sizable community of mixed-race, middle-class free Blacks, many of whom spoke French as a first language.
At a time when the overwhelming majority of American Blacks were poor, uneducated, rural laborers, either ex-slaves or the descendants of slaves, New Orleans was home to a large number of relatively affluent, educated, professional Blacks, many of them descended from generations of freemen. New Orleans' proud community of free Blacks wasn't ahout to give in to Jim Crow without a fight.
So, in 1891, a number of the city's leading Black citizens formed the Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law—only they actually called it the Comité des Citoyens, because they mostly spoke French—and began plotting a challenge to the new law. A young Citizens' Committee member named Homer Plessy volunteered to have himself arrested for deliberately breaking the Separate Car Law, hoping that his case would end with the statute being ruled unconstitutional by the courts.
Like Rosa Parks half a century later, Homer Plessy decided to break Jim Crow laws on public transport not on a whim, but instead as a deliberate tactic of civil-rights activism. Unlike Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus, however, Homer Plessy's challenge to the Separate Car Law would end in disastrous defeat. Instead of bringing down Jim Crow, Plessy found himself convicted and then defeated in legal appeals at every level of the judicial system.
The U.S. Supreme Court's ultimate 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson—Ferguson was the name of local judge who had presided over Plessy's original conviction—enshrined the Jim Crow principle of "separate but equal" (which meant, in practice, "separate and unequal") as the law of the land for more than half a century.
Homer Plessy was, in many ways, an unlikely standard-bearer for the cause of Black equality. Born in 1863 to free parents, he'd never known slavery. He'd never worked in agriculture, instead supporting himself through artisanal and professional work in New Orleans. At different times, he worked as a shoemaker, a carpenter, and an insurance agent.
His native language wasn't even English. While today we almost always pronounce his name in anglicized fashion as HO-mer PLESS-ee, the man himself used the French pronunciation, more like oh-MARE ples-SEE. Most importantly, Homer Plessy was seven-eighths white—an "octoroon," to use the archaic racial categorization of his own time. With just one African-American great-grandparent, the light-skinned Plessy appeared to be white but was legally defined as Black under Louisiana law. Louisiana, like most states, used the so-called "one drop" rule to categorize citizens by race—anyone with one drop of African blood was classified as Black.
It seems likely that the Citizens' Committee specifically chose Homer Plessy to serve as its test case because of his multiracial ancestry and white appearance. The fact that Plessy didn't look Black would make it easy for him to infiltrate the whites-only car without encountering any resistance, highlighting the arbitrary discrimination of the law.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Plessy and the Citizens' Committee organized their challenge to the Separate Car Law with the complete cooperation of the East Louisiana Railroad. The railroad was less interested in defending white supremacy than in making a profit, and it cost good money to provide separate cars for whites and Blacks on every train while hiring extra workers to enforce segregation. So, when Plessy bought a first-class ticket and boarded the train on June 7th, 1892, the railroad hired a private detective to ride along to make sure that someone was on hand to arrest him.
Plessy's arrival in the "whites only" coach drew no attention—his fellow passengers had no clue that the white-looking gentlemen seated nearby was about to undertake one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in African-American history. Plessy patiently waited for the conductor to arrive to check tickets, then calmly informed him that he possessed one-eighth African blood but that he had no intention to move to the "colored only" car. Following their prearranged plan, the railroad's special detective took Plessy into custody on criminal charges of violating the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890. Plessy spent one night in jail before being freed on bond.
Plessy, the Citizens' Committee, and the East Louisiana Railroad all hoped that the court would vindicate Plessy by overturning the railroad segregation law as unconstitutional. Instead, Judge John Ferguson rejected the Citizens' Committee's constitutional arguments and convicted Homer Plessy for breaking the law. The Louisiana Supreme Court then upheld the verdict, before the United States Supreme Court finally agreed to hear the case in 1896.
The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson dealt a devastating blow to Homer Plessy and all other African Americans. By a 7 to 1 majority, the justices upheld Louisiana's Jim Crow railroad act, ruling that the 14th Amendment offered no protection to "social rights" and that, "if one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."
The court explicitly rejected Plessy's argument that segregation was inherently demeaning, taking a gratuitous slap at Jim Crow's victims by describing as a "fallacy" the idea that "the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
Only one justice, John Marshall Harlan—ironically, a Southerner and former slaveholder—dissented from the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson, recognizing segregation as a "badge of servitude" inherently degrading to Black citizens. "In the view of the constitution," Harlan wrote, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."
But Justice Harlan's ringing defense of colorblind democracy was at least half a century ahead of its time. In 1896, the overwhelming majority of the American people, like the overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court, did tolerate classes among citizens, and Plessy v. Ferguson guaranteed that Jim Crow laws designed to enforce divisions among those classes would be protected from constitutional challenge.
By so firmly and unambiguously endorsing the logic of segregation in Plessy, the Supreme Court all but encouraged states to pass ever more draconian laws to separate Blacks from whites in all spheres of public life. John Marshall Harlan's more egalitarian interpretation of the law would, eventually, be vindicated—but not until 1954, when the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education. For the intervening 58 years, Jim Crow would be the law of the land.
While Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined Jim Crow principles at the federal level, the particular Jim Crow laws themselves were always imposed by the individual states. In 1876, the Mississippi legislature—the first since Radical Reconstruction to be controlled by Democrats—voted to increase penalties for petty crimes committed in the state.
Under the so-called "pig law," anyone found guilty of stealing a farm animal or any other piece of property worth more than $10 would be charged with grand larceny and sentenced to up to five years in prison. Though the statute applied to all citizens, white police officers and trial judges selectively enforced it.
The same was true for a slew of similar seemingly "colorblind" laws passed throughout the South after Radical Reconstruction. Strict vagrancy statues, for instance, criminalized unemployment and authorized the arrest of any person loitering in public. Like Mississippi's "pig law," vagrancy laws disproportionately impacted African Americans, particularly poor, young Black men. Local authorities usually pardoned jobless whites for appearing idle, disheveled, or both, doling out hefty punishments to Black offenders in the form of exorbitant fines and lengthy jail sentences.
Time and time again, African Americans found themselves singled out for misdemeanors, like trespassing, public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and minor assault, or charged with obscure or nonexistent crimes.
"'Pears to me dar hain't no justice for a man ob my color down yere," a Black prisoner remarked in 1885.
As a young girl growing up in Louisiana during the 1930s, Thelma Williams understood little about the segregated world in which she lived, saying, "What we [children] knew about [Jim Crow in our neighborhood] was almost rumor." Her parents and other adults in the all-Black region of Shreveport rarely spoke about their encounters with white people or, in fact, mentioned much about whites at all.
Instead, Williams recalls, adults were in the habit of whispering. Secrecy, she says, was a "kind of protection that we were given."
These were the devastating lessons taught in the school of Jim Crow society.
On the evening of February 8th, 1915, guests spilled into Clune's Broadway Theatre in Los Angeles, filling its 775-seat auditorium. The audience buzzed with anticipation, titillated by the promise of an extraordinary movie masterpiece, a cinematic experience more grand in scale than anything before seen. As the lights dimmed, the curtains lifted to reveal the projection screen, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic—a 70-piece symphony orchestra—delivered a thunderous introduction to the world premiere of director D. W. Griffith's new film, The Clansman.
The three-hour silent cinema epic thrilled viewers with electrifying performances, spectacular special effects, elaborate fight sequences, and, above all, its provocative story. Griffith presented moviegoers with a vivid interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath, a tale of greed, corruption, violence, vengeance, and heroism. Based on a novel written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., Clansman portrayed Radical Reconstruction as a series of tragic events that devastated the South, divided families, and ultimately "put the white South under the heel of the Black South."
Galveston, Texas couldn't contain Arthur "Jack" Johnson. A child of former slaves, he grew up after the fall of Radical Reconstruction, in an increasingly oppressive society. Johnson was a precocious, determined young man, committed to supporting his parents but impatient with the small jobs and poor opportunities offered by his hometown. Seeking more excitement and greater challenges for his 6'2", 200-pound frame, he gravitated toward the world of boxing.
Boxing—the most popular American sport through the turn of the 20th century—required from its participants youth, brawn, charisma, confidence, and intellect. Johnson boasted each of these qualities plus the sort of savvy that helped him make the most of his skills. By his late teens, the young fighter had earned a modicum of success: he won a few hometown bouts and even survived four full rounds against Black professional boxer "Utah" Bob Thompson.
Local fame and miniscule rewards, however, weren't enough for Johnson. "The purses offered were truly minimal—10, 15, or 20 dollars at most." After paying his trainers, he explained, "all I'd have is debts." His arrogance and bold bravado offended the sensibilities of many whites, like Sun reporter Charles Dana, who believed in the sanctity of racial hierarchies.
Ostentatious, cocky, and exhibiting little respect for Jim Crow racial codes and traditions, he stood in stark contrast to moderate leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. Johnson unapologetically humiliated the most famous and beloved of all white athletes, flaunted his wealth, and paraded his white mistresses in public. Washington, on the other hand, carefully navigated the Southern racial terrain, cooperating with powerful whites and asking Black Southerners to accept racial subjugation in exchange for employment opportunities.
In fact, Washington didn't approve of Johnson's behavior and felt he was an embarrassment to the race. So, for many whites, Johnson's swelling popularity among Blacks posed a significant threat to the racial status quo of the Jim Crow era.
During one of the most turbulent periods in American race relations, Jack Johnson—a Black boxer from the Jim Crow South—emerged as the first great popular culture icon of the 20th century. At a time when Jim Crow laws and white violence controlled the lives of Black Southerners and informed race relations throughout the North and the West, Johnson became a role model to many in the Black community—particularly the Black working class.
Even though he hadn't identified as such, many admired the Southern-born fighter as a man who single-handedly defended the honor of his race. Johnson's stunning victories signaled, for much of Black America, the beginning of the end of an era of racial subjugation. And white fury over his success only solidified these expectations.
Just like his white opponents, Jack Johnson ultimately proved to be vulnerable to defeat. Only a few years after his notorious performance against Jeffries, he'd disappeared from the national headlines and faced miscegenation charges related to his marriage to Lucille Cameron, a white prostitute.
In order to escape a prison sentence (and, likely, murder at the hands of a lynch mob), Johnson fled to Canada, then Europe, and, finally, South America. While in exile, he agreed to defend his heavyweight title against Jess Willard, a young white contender from Kansas. But Johnson, undertrained and overweight, fell to the mat after 26 rounds. He lost the match and his title belt.
22 years would pass before any Black boxer would again be allowed to compete against a white title holder.
Though Jack Johnson all but vanished from the sports world by the 1920s, his legacy survived during the Jim Crow era and remained an important inspiration to some, a chilling nightmare to others.
Young Booker T. Washington was an exemplary student. A sponge for information, he possessed an unyielding curiosity that stemmed from his boyhood years. Born into slavery in 1856, laws forbade him to attend school or learn to read and write, yet he observed lessons attended by his master's daughter and couldn't help but dream of participating himself.
"The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me," Washington reflected later, "and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise."
In other words, Washington promoted a thoroughly capitalist notion of economic advancement—the "American Dream"—upon which the United States had been founded.
Many of the African-American community's middle and upper-class members embraced their leader's message. In their own material success, they found faith in his declarations. Among these elites, including Black politicians and office seekers, school administrators, entrepreneurs, and church leaders, Washington found his greatest support.
In addition, Washington—his life a prototype of the rags-to-riches tale—earned favor among the working class Black masses. Those who believed it possible to emulate such personal progress deemed him a worthy role model. Furthermore, these Southern supporters perceived Washington's tactics of compromise as obligatory for continued survival within the confines of the Jim Crow South—behind their leader, they resolved to utilize accommodation in order to slowly but surely undermine an elaborate system of oppression.
And contrary to popular myth, no Black leader until the ascent of Marcus Garvey in the 1910s garnered more support from the nation's Black masses.
Some African-Americans, however, rejected Washington's proposed solution to their subordination. Most prominent among his dissenters was W. E. B. Du Bois, a scholar raised in the North and educated, primarily, in the South.
During the years of Washington's rise, Du Bois lived and taught throughout the Jim Crow South. As he toured the region, worked in various segregated schools, and listened to Black Southerners describe their experiences living in poverty, he became deeply troubled. In erecting political, legal, social, and psychological obstacles, Du Bois found, whites had effectively denied Blacks freedom.
Like Washington, Du Bois criticized those members of the community whom he deemed lazy or criminal. He also concluded that with economic success, Blacks would gain equality. Du Bois disagreed with Washington, however, in his views on the value of political agency, higher education, and civil liberties. Without the vote, equal access to professional opportunities, and equal protection under the law, Black progress was all but impossible.
Washington's doctrine, Du Bois argued, prepared the Black race to fail and, ultimately, allowed "whites, North and South, [to] shift the burden of the N**** problem to the N****'s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation." That whites consistently denied Blacks access to full citizenship, he avowed, shouldn't be excused—the reality was that, no matter how much humility Blacks displayed, whites would continue to resist racial equality by any means necessary.
Du Bois was right. In fact, his theory about white opposition to Black advancement was far more accurate than he knew.
He and Washington disagreed, fundamentally, over the path to progress, but in the end, both believed the road could be paved. Neither leader, however, grasped the fact that in the Jim Crow South, progress itself proved to be the greatest enemy of all. In general, the experiences of African Americans mocked the claim that the nation was a "Land of Opportunity."
All too often, Black success provoked white resentment and invited retaliation. Farmers who managed to purchase land or animals, successful businessmen and women, those who advanced professionally, and Black families displaying evidence of material gain were vulnerable to white intimidation, harassment, terrorism, and violence. Success—whether paired with accommodation and segregation or with suffrage and higher education—was ultimately suicidal.
In the months before his death in November 1915, Booker T. Washington joined ranks with other Black leaders to decry D. W. Griffith's sensational pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Much to the dismay of Black organizations and citizens nationwide, the movie became a blockbuster hit, raking in millions in profits. Griffith's portrayal of African-Americans in the film—as villains, brutes, savages, buffoons, and cowards—helped justify the exclusion of Blacks from full citizenship, helped validate and sustain segregation in the South, and, perhaps most significantly, encouraged the nation to continue to excuse the murder of fellow citizens.
It remains unclear from Washington's own writing whether he realized, through these awful stereotypes, the tragic flaw in his program. Did he lament his inability to understand the true depth of racism in the South (and throughout the nation), or was he ultimately disappointed in the failure of his people to pull themselves up economically and to win the respect of white society?
Perhaps he felt a bit of both. Washington's own words and the records of his tireless work reveal that he was a complex man. He was both practical and idealistic, but above all, he was restless. He cultivated power and nurtured relationships with powerful people—whites and Blacks—in order to secure for his people as much as he believed could be attained within the limits of Jim Crow. In the final year of his life, as his elite clout waned and the injustices he hoped to eradicate only grew in scope, Booker T. Washington may have looked to the new generation of Blacks for better answers.
In April 1917, Mr. Cleveland Galliard, a 31-year-old resident of Mobile, Alabama, penned a letter to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois.
"I am a colored young man in need of a position," he wrote, "because I have a family to support and I am out of a job and I can't get nothing to do to support them. [...] I was working here for the New Orleans, Mobile, & Chicago [Railroad] running the elevator and cleaning up to and they want me to work night and day for the same amount of salary which was only $20 per month and so I quit and I have been looking every since last [November]." Galliard listed his employment qualifications and begged the Association to contact him at once.blank">Woodrow Wilson's promise to make the world "safe for democracy" result in any significant improvements to the state of domestic race relations.
Still, in creating the circumstances in which half a million Black Southerners were able to relocate, the war set into motion a revolutionary movement—one that would alter the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the nation.