The African American Struggle for Equality

Lumen Learning and OpenStax

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify key events in the history of African American civil rights
  • Explain how the courts, Congress, and the executive branch supported the civil rights movement
  • Describe the role of grassroots efforts in the civil rights movement

Many groups in U.S. history have sought recognition as equal citizens. Although each group’s efforts have been notable and important, arguably the greatest, longest, and most violent struggle remains that of African Americans, whose dehumanization was even written into the text of the Constitution in the clause counting them as three-fifths of a person. Their fight for freedom and equality provided the legal and moral foundation for others who sought recognition of their equality later on. From its inception, the United States had a history of exclusion that can be clearly seen in the original U.S. Constitution. The term “Other Persons” in Article 1, Section 2,  which states “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of Free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians, not taxed, three-fifth of all other Persons,” refers to the Black population in slavery within the United States at that particular time.  Also, Article 1, Section 9 required a twenty year period before a ban on the importation of African enslaved persons. Article 4, Section 2 imposed a fugitive slave clause which required that enslaved persons that escaped from their owners should be returned.


In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson made the radical statement that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet like other wealthy landowners of his time, Jefferson also owned dozens of other human beings as his personal property. He recognized this contradiction, personally considered the institution of slavery to be a “hideous blot” on the nation, and agreed to free those he held in bondage upon his death.[1] However, to forge a political union that would stand the test of time, he and the other founders—and later the framers of the Constitution—chose not to address the issue in any definitive way. Political support for abolition was very much a minority stance in the United States at the time, although after the Revolution many of the northern states followed the European example of fifty years prior in abolishing slavery.[2] The response of persons of African descent to the imposition of slavery reflected differing reactions and approaches to seeking redress. African Americans both free and enslaved did not undertake the same actions in showing their opposition to slavery. For many such as Phyllis Wheatley, the expression of opposition came through the eloquent writing of poetry, for others like Fredrick Douglas, through fiery oratories. For some like Harriet Tubman, it would be with the help of antislavery advocates facilitating escapes to the North by way of safe havens and routes on the so-called Underground Railroad. Yet a fourth and often highly violent and controversial approach was through uprisings and slave revolts. The most notable revolt occurring in Louisiana was the slave revolt of 1811. The revolt of 1811 of Black enslaved persons led by Charles Deslondes occurred in parts of the territory of Orleans, where he swept through the Destrehan Plantation but was eventually  put down by a militia group.

As the new United States expanded westward, however, the issue of slavery became harder to ignore and ignited much controversy. Many opponents of slavery were willing to accept the institution if it remained largely confined to the South but did not want it to spread westward. They feared the expansion of slavery would lead to the political dominance of the South over the North and would deprive small farmers in the newly acquired western territories who could not afford to enslave others.[3] Abolitionists, primarily in the North, also argued that slavery was both immoral and contrary to the nation’s values and demanded an end to it.

The spread of slavery into the West seemed inevitable, however, following the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford.[4] The justices rejected Scott’s argument that though he had been born into slavery, his time spent in free states and territories where slavery had been banned by the federal government had made him a free man. In fact, the Court’s majority stated that Scott had no legal right to sue for his freedom at all because Black people (whether free or enslaved) were not, and could not become, U.S. citizens. Thus, Scott lacked the standing to even appear before the Court. The Court also held that Congress lacked the power to decide whether slavery would be permitted in a territory that had been acquired after the Constitution was ratified. This decision had the effect of prohibiting the federal government from passing any laws that would limit the expansion of slavery into any part of the West.

Ultimately, of course, the issue was decided by the Civil War (1861–1865), with the Southern states seceding to defend their “states’ rights,” specifically, the purported right to own human property, without federal interference.[5] Although at the beginning of the war President Abraham Lincoln had been willing to allow slavery to continue in the South to preserve the Union, he changed his policies regarding abolition over the course of the war. The first step was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Although it stated “all persons held as slaves . . . henceforward shall be free,” the proclamation was limited in effect to the states that had rebelled. Enslaved people in states that had remained within the Union, such as Maryland and Delaware, were not set free, nor were they in parts of the Confederacy already occupied by the Union army. Although enslaved people in rebel states were freed by federal decree, the relatively small Union troop presence made it impossible to enforce their release from bondage.[6] With this Proclamation issued by President Lincoln in 1863, the United States government recognized enslaved persons held in Southern states that had rebelled against the union as free people. Slavery in the border states of Kentucky and Missouri and the new state of West Virginia after 1863, as well as Maryland and Delaware, was not impacted. From a military standpoint, it encouraged enslaved persons held in Southern states to disrupt plantation life and escape with the intent to join the Union army to fight for freedom.

Image A is of Abraham Lincoln sitting in a chair. Image B is the Emancipation Proclamation.
Figure 1. In this memorial engraving from 1865 (the year he was assassinated), President Abraham Lincoln is shown with his hand resting on a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation (a). Despite popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation (b) actually freed very few enslaved people, though it did change the meaning of the war.


At the end of the Civil War, the South entered a period called Reconstruction (1865–1877), during which state governments were reorganized before the rebellious states were allowed to be readmitted to the Union. As part of this process, the Republican Party pushed for a permanent end to slavery. A constitutional amendment to this effect was passed by the House of Representatives in January 1865, after having already been approved by the Senate in April 1864, and it was ratified in December 1865 as the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment’s first section states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In effect, this amendment outlawed slavery in the United States.

The changes wrought by the Fourteenth Amendment were more extensive. In addition to introducing the equal protection clause to the Constitution, this amendment also extended the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the states, required the states to respect the privileges or immunities of all citizens, and, for the first time, defined citizenship at the national and state levels. People could no longer be excluded from citizenship based solely on their race. Although lack of political or judicial action rendered some of these provisions toothless, others were pivotal in the expansion of civil rights.

The Fifteenth Amendment stated that people could not be denied the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This construction allowed states to continue to decide the qualifications of voters as long as those qualifications seemed to be race-neutral. Thus, while states could not deny Black people the right to vote on the basis of race, they could deny it on any number of arbitrary grounds such as literacy, land ownership, affluence, or political knowledge.

Although the immediate effect of these provisions was quite profound, over time the Republicans in Congress gradually lost interest in pursuing Reconstruction policies, and the Reconstruction ended with the end of military rule in the South and the withdrawal of the Union army in 1877.[7] The major event leading to the end of Reconstruction was the Hayes-Tilden Compromise. The Hayes-Tilden Compromise involved a deal made following the 1876 presidential election by House Republicans in the South to support Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden in return for the withdrawal of federal troops in the South, since neither candidate received the electoral votes required to win the election outright.  The event ushered in the rise of so-called Redeemer Democrats after the Civil War whose aim was to return to state power and to foster the demise of Black voter participation would lead to the Jim Crow era. Following the army’s removal, political control of the South fell once again into the hands of White men, and violence was used to discourage Black people from exercising the rights they had been granted.[8] The revocation of voting rights, or disenfranchisement, took a number of forms; not every Southern state used the same methods, and some states used more than one, but they all disproportionately affected Black voter registration and turnout.[9]

Cartoon with a person dressed in a top hat and a coat with tails writing on the wall.
Figure 2. A magazine cartoon from 1879 ridicules the practice of illiterate, southern White people requiring that a “blakman” be “eddikated” before he could vote. The grandfather clause made such a situation possible.

Perhaps the most famous of the tools of disenfranchisement were literacy tests and understanding tests. Literacy tests, which had been used in the North since the 1850s to disqualify naturalized European immigrants from voting, called on the prospective voter to demonstrate his (and later her) ability to read a particular passage of text. However, since voter registration officials had discretion to decide what text the voter was to read, they could give easy passages to voters they wanted to register (typically, White people) and more difficult passages to those whose registration they wanted to deny (typically, Black people). Understanding tests required the prospective voter to explain the meaning of a particular passage of text, often a provision of the U.S. Constitution, or answer a series of questions related to citizenship. Again, since the official examining the prospective voter could decide which passage or questions to choose, the difficulty of the test could vary dramatically between African American and White applicants.[10] Even if these tests had been administered fairly and equitably, however, most African Americans would have been at a huge disadvantage because few had been taught to read. Although schools for Black people existed in some places, Southern states had made it largely illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write. At the beginning of the Civil War, only 5 percent of Black people could read and write, and most of them lived in the North.[11] Some were able to take advantage of educational opportunities after they were freed, but many were not able to gain effective literacy.

In some states, poorer, less literate White voters feared being disenfranchised by the literacy and understanding tests. Some states introduced a loophole, known as the grandfather clause, to allow less literate White people to vote. The grandfather clause exempted those who had been allowed to vote in that state prior to the Civil War and their descendants from literacy and understanding tests.[12] Because Black people were not allowed to vote prior to the Civil War but most White men had been voting at a time when there were no literacy tests, this loophole allowed most illiterate White people to vote while leaving obstacles in place for Black people who wanted to vote as well. Time limits were often placed on these provisions because state legislators realized that they might quickly be declared unconstitutional, but they lasted long enough to allow illiterate White men to register to vote.[13]

In states where the voting rights of poor White people were less of a concern, another tool for disenfranchisement was the poll tax. This was an annual per-person tax, typically one or two dollars (twenty to fifty dollars today), that a person had to pay to register to vote. People who didn’t want to vote didn’t have to pay, but in several states the poll tax was cumulative, so if you decided to vote, you would have to pay not only the tax due for that year but any poll tax from previous years as well. Because formerly enslaved people were usually quite poor, they were less likely than White men to be able to pay poll taxes.[14]

Receipt from Jefferson Parish.
Figure 3. According to this receipt, a man named A. S. White paid his $1 poll tax in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, in 1917.

Although these methods were usually sufficient to ensure that Black people were kept away from the polls, some dedicated African Americans did manage to register to vote despite the obstacles placed in their way. To ensure their vote was largely meaningless, the White elites used their control of the Democratic Party to create the white primary: primary elections in which only White people were allowed to vote. The state party organizations argued that as private groups, rather than part of the state government, they had no obligation to follow the Fifteenth Amendment’s requirement not to deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Furthermore, they contended, voting for nominees to run for office was not the same as electing those who would actually hold office. So they held primary elections to choose the Democratic nominee in which only White citizens were allowed to vote.[15] Once the nominee had been chosen, they might face token opposition from a Republican or minor-party candidate in the general election, but since White voters had agreed beforehand to support whoever won the Democrats’ primary, the outcome of the general election was a foregone conclusion.

With Black people effectively disenfranchised, the restored Southern state governments undermined guarantees of equal treatment in the Fourteenth Amendment. They passed laws that excluded African Americans from juries and allowed the imprisonment and forced labor of “idle” Black citizens. The laws also called for segregation of White and Black people in public places under the doctrine known as “separate but equal.” By 1883, the US Supreme Court declared the Civil rights Act of 1875 which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations unconstitutional. The New Orleans area became the scene of major controversy that laid the groundwork for Plessy vs. Ferguson, a legal challenge to Louisiana state law requiring racially segregated public transportation facilities. Homer Plessy, a Black  New Orleanian, was part of an integrated group, The Citizens Committee (Comite’ des Citoyens in French) that supported action to sit in the Whites-only seats while refusing to sit in the area of the train reserved for “colored” passengers for his trip from New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain to Covington, Louisiana. The case reached the US Supreme Court in 1896 and by a 7-1 decision upheld the Louisiana law of separate but equal, thereby ruling in favor of segregation in the area of public accommodation.

As long as nominally equal facilities were provided for both races, it was legal to require members of each race to use the facilities designated for them. Similarly, state and local governments passed laws limiting neighborhoods in which Black and White people could live. Collectively, these discriminatory laws came to be known as Jim Crow laws. The Supreme Court upheld the separate but equal doctrine in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, inconsistent with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, and allowed segregation to continue.[16]

*Watch this video to learn more about equal protection and the context surrounding the history leading to the civil rights movement and greater equality for African Americans and Blacks in the United States.


By the turn of the twentieth century, the position of African Americans was quite bleak. Even outside the South, racial inequality was a fact of everyday life. African American leaders and thinkers themselves disagreed on the right path forward. Some, like Booker T. Washington, argued that acceptance of inequality and segregation over the short term would allow African Americans to focus their efforts on improving their educational and social status until White people were forced to acknowledge them as equals. W.E.B. Du Bois, however, argued for a more confrontational approach and in 1909 founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a rallying point for securing equality. White liberals dominated the organization in its early years, but Black people assumed control over its operations in the 1920s.[17]

The NAACP soon focused on a strategy of overturning Jim Crow laws through the courts. Perhaps its greatest series of legal successes consisted of its efforts to challenge segregation in education. Early cases brought by the NAACP dealt with racial discrimination in higher education. In 1938, the Supreme Court essentially gave states a choice: they could either integrate institutions of higher education or they could establish an equivalent university or college for African Americans.[18] Southern states chose to establish colleges for Black people rather than allow them into all-White state institutions. Although this ruling expanded opportunities for professional and graduate education in areas such as law and medicine for African Americans by requiring states to provide institutions for them to attend, it nevertheless allowed segregated colleges and universities to continue to exist.

The landmark court decision of the judicial phase of the civil rights movement settled the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.[19] In this case, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson as it pertained to public education, stating that a separate but equal education was a logical impossibility. Even with the same funding and equivalent facilities, a segregated school could not have the same teachers or environment as the equivalent school for another race. The court also rested its decision in part on social science studies suggesting that racial discrimination led to feelings of inferiority among Black children. The only way to dispel this sense of inferiority was to end segregation and integrate public schools.

It is safe to say this ruling was controversial. While integration of public schools took place without much incident in some areas of the South, particularly where there were few Black students, elsewhere it was often confrontational—or nonexistent. However, this was not the case in 1960 with the integration of the Orleans Parish Schools. The plan to integrate the Orleans Parish Schools ordered by federal judge J. Skelly Wright involved integration at the lowest grade levels then with the plan for higher level grades to gradually be integrated. Two elementary schools scheduled for the first day of integration of Black students into kindergarten brought Ruby Bridges to William Frantz Elementary School and  Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Etienne as a group of three to McDonogh No. 19. The first day tensions at Franz received considerable attention nationally, featuring death threats, racist outbursts, and racial slurs from mobs of angry White parents. The outrageous scene at Franz has been vividly depicted in well publicized photos and in the classic painting by famous artist Norman Rockwell, which shows that the presence of a federal marshal was necessary to escort a young Ruby Bridges to her class in the midst of the ruckus.

In recognition of the fact that southern states would delay school integration for as long as possible, civil rights activists urged the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision. Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph organized a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, DC, on May 17, 1957, in which approximately twenty-five thousand African Americans participated.[20]

A few months later, in Little Rock, Arkansas, governor Orval Faubus resisted court-ordered integration and mobilized National Guard troops to keep Black students out of Central High School. President Eisenhower then called up the Arkansas National Guard for federal duty (essentially taking the troops out of Faubus’s hands) and sent soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to escort students to and from classes. To avoid integration, Faubus closed four high schools in Little Rock the following school year.[21]

Several armed military officers escorting two people out of a car.
Figure 4. Opposition to the 1957 integration of Little Rock’s all-White Central High School led President Eisenhower to call in soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. For a year, they escorted nine African American students to and from school and to and from classes within the school. (credit: The U.S. Army)

In Virginia, state leaders employed a strategy of “massive resistance” to school integration, which led to the closure of a large number of public schools across the state, some for years.[22] Although de jure segregation, segregation mandated by law, had ended on paper, in practice, few efforts were made to integrate schools in most school districts with substantial Black student populations until the late 1960s. Many White southerners who objected to sending their children to school with Black students then established private academies that admitted only White students; many of these schools remain overwhelmingly White today.[23]

School and other segregation was and is hardly limited to the South. Many neighborhoods in northern cities remain segregated by virtue of “redlining” districts where minorities were allowed and not allowed to live. Restrictive real estate covenants bound White residents to not sell their houses to African Americans and sometimes not to Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos, Jews, and other ethnic minorities. In New York City in the late 1950s, a group of activist parents led by Mae Mallory protested the inadequate schools in their neighborhood; a court ruled that New York was engaging in de facto segregation and forced the city to institute policies that would provide more equitable access.[24] More recently, banks have been fined for not lending to people of color to buy homes and start business at rates commensurate with similarly situated prospective White borrowers. Relegation of minority residents to less desirable neighborhoods has the practical effect of diminishing both generational wealth and the tax base needed to build, maintain, and improve schools and other institutions that might hasten equality and integration.

In the postwar era of White flight, however, the Supreme Court had been evolving into a more progressive force in the promotion and preservation of civil rights. In the case of Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), the Supreme Court held that while such covenants did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because they consisted of agreements between private citizens, their provisions could not be enforced by courts.[25] Because state courts are government institutions and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the government from denying people equal protection of the law, the courts’ enforcement of such covenants would be a violation of the amendment. Thus, if a White family chose to sell its house to a Black family and the other homeowners in the neighborhood tried to sue the seller, the court would not hear the case. In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law that prohibited interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia.[26]


Beyond these favorable court rulings, however, progress toward equality for African Americans remained slow in the 1950s. In 1962, Congress proposed what later became the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which banned the poll tax in elections to federal (but not state or local) office; the amendment went into effect after being ratified in early 1964. Several Southern states continued to require residents to pay poll taxes in order to vote in state elections until 1966 when, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the Supreme Court declared that requiring payment of a poll tax in order to vote in an election at any level was unconstitutional.[27]

The slow rate of progress led to frustration within the Black community. Newer, grassroots organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) challenged the NAACP’s position as the leading civil rights organization and questioned its legal-focused strategy. These newer groups tended to prefer more confrontational approaches, including the use of direct action campaigns relying on marches and demonstrations. The strategies of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, or the refusal to obey an unjust law, had been effective in the campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi to liberate colonial India from British rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Civil rights pioneers adopted these measures in the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a White person and was arrested, a group of Black women carried out a day-long boycott of Montgomery’s public transit system. This boycott was then extended for over a year and overseen by union organizer E. D. Nixon. The effort desegregated public transportation in that city.[28] However, the Montgomery bus boycott was not the earliest effort to address segregated public transit using nonviolent direct action. In June 1953, the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott led by Reverend T. J. Jemison, minister of one of the largest Black churches in Baton Rouge, occurred as a result of the City of Baton Rouge’s refusal to enforce its ordinance that permitted seating on city buses on a first come, first served basis. A coalition of organizations came together and, through their efforts, forced a compromise reserving only two front seats for Whites and some other seats for Blacks while all other seats were opened on a first come, first served basis. Although a compromise was necessary, the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott and its mass rallies and free carpools using volunteer drivers clearly demonstrated the power of nonviolent mass action.

Direct action also took such forms as the sit-in campaigns to desegregate lunch counters that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 and the 1961 Freedom Rides, in which Black and White volunteers rode buses and trains through the South to enforce a 1946 Supreme Court decision that desegregated interstate transportation (Morgan v. Virginia).[29] In New Orleans in 1960, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a major civil rights organization, undertook a sit-in of the restaurants located in downtown stores of Woolworth and McCrory in an effort to desegregate the New Orleans restaurants that were segregated. At the Woolworth lunch counter on Canal Street, five Black and two White students staged the first organized lunch counter sit-in demonstration in New Orleans and were arrested. The second involved a group of four students, two Black males, one White male, and one Black female, who sat quietly and refused to leave and were therefore arrested. Eventually in 1963, the U.S. Supreme court threw out their arrests in the case of Lombard v. Louisiana.

While such focused campaigns could be effective, they often had little impact in places where they were not replicated. In addition, some of the campaigns led to violence against both the campaigns’ leaders and ordinary people; Rosa Parks, a longtime NAACP member and graduate of the Highlander Folk School for civil rights activists, whose actions had begun the Montgomery boycott, received death threats. E. D. Nixon’s home was bombed, and the Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama.[30]

As the campaign for civil rights continued and gained momentum, President John F. Kennedy called for Congress to pass new civil rights legislation, which began to work its way through Congress in 1963. The resulting law (pushed heavily and then signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination) was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had wide-ranging effects on U.S. society. Not only did the act outlaw government discrimination and the unequal application of voting qualifications by race, but it also, for the first time, outlawed segregation and other forms of discrimination by most businesses that were open to the public, including hotels, theaters, and restaurants that were not private clubs. It outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin by most employers, and it created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to monitor employment discrimination claims and help enforce this provision of the law. The provisions that affected private businesses and employers were legally justified not by the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws but instead by Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.[31]

Image A shows people marching acorss a bridge with police in the foreground. Image B shows a funeral procession.
Figure 5. The police attack on civil rights demonstrators as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, is remembered as “Bloody Sunday” (a). John Lewis’s funeral procession crosses the Edmund Pettus bridge on July 26, 2020 (b). (credit a: modification of “Bloody Sunday-officers await demonstrators” by U.S. Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of “Rep. John Lewis Funeral Procession Over Edmund Pettus Bridge” by C-SPAN/YouTube, Public Domain)

Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a monumental impact over the long term, it did not end efforts by many southern White people to maintain the White-dominated political power structure in the region. Progress in registering African American voters remained slow in many states despite increased federal activity supporting it, so civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to draw the public eye to the area where the greatest resistance to voter registration drives were taking place. The SCLC and SNCC particularly focused their attention on the city of Selma, Alabama, which had been the site of violent reactions against civil rights activities.

The organizations’ leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. Their first attempt to march was violently broken up by state police and sheriff’s deputies. The second attempt was aborted because King feared it would lead to a brutal confrontation with police and violate a court order from a federal judge who had been sympathetic to the movement in the past. That night, three of the marchers, White ministers from the north, were attacked and beaten with clubs by members of the Ku Klux Klan; one of the victims died from his injuries. Televised images of the brutality against protesters and the death of a minister led to greater public sympathy for the cause. Eventually, a third march was successful in reaching the state capital of Montgomery.[32]

The events at Selma galvanized support in Congress for a follow-up bill solely dealing with the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 went beyond previous laws by requiring greater oversight of elections by federal officials. Literacy and understanding tests, and other devices used to discriminate against voters on the basis of race, were banned. The Voting Rights Act proved to have much more immediate and dramatic effect than the laws that preceded it; what had been a fairly slow process of improving voter registration and participation was replaced by a rapid increase in Black voter registration rates—although White registration rates increased over this period as well.[33] To many people’s way of thinking, however, the Supreme Court turned back the clock when it gutted a core aspect of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013).[34] No longer would states need federal approval to change laws and policies related to voting. Indeed, many states with a history of voter discrimination quickly resumed restrictive practices with laws requiring photo IDs; limiting early voting, ballot drop-off locations, and hours; and making registering and waiting to vote more onerous. Some of the new restrictions are already being challenged in court.[35] As a result the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of  Shelby County v. Holder, Republican state legislatures have passed voting laws that many voting rights advocates contend suppress voting in communities of color because the court’s decision gutted Section 5, which required federal preclearance be provided to states with a history of past discrimination.

Not all African Americans in the civil rights movement were comfortable with gradual change. Instead of using marches and demonstrations to change people’s attitudes, calling for tougher civil rights laws, or suing for their rights in court, they favored more immediate action to prevent White oppression and protect their communities. Men like Malcolm X, and groups like the Black Panthers were willing to use other means to achieve their goals.[36] A turning point in the transition from nonviolent direct action to employing more aggressive strategies in resisting hate and the more aggressive tactics of the KKK and other White segregation groups can be found in the formation of the Deacons of Defense in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The group of several ex-military veterans dedicated themselves to using more assertive defense tactics in protecting civil rights in Bogalusa and on the other side of the Mississippi River in Mississippi. Faced with continual violence at the hands of police and acts of terrorism, like the bombing of a Black church in Alabama that killed four girls, Malcolm X expressed significant distrust of White people. He sought to raise the self-esteem of Black people and advocated for their separation from the United States through eventual emigration to Africa. In general, Malcolm X rejected the mainstream civil rights movement’s integration and assimilation approach and laid the foundation for the Black Power movement, which sought self-determination and independence for Black people. His position was attractive to many young African Americans, especially after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X.
Figure 6. Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) and Malcolm X (right) adopted different approaches to securing civil rights for Black people. This occasion, a Senate debate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was the only time the two men ever met.


The civil rights movement for African Americans did not end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. For the last fifty years, the African American community has faced challenges related to both past and current discrimination, and progress on both fronts remains slow, uneven, and often frustrating.

Legacies of the de jure segregation of the past remain in much of the United States. Many Black people still live in predominantly Black neighborhoods where their ancestors were forced by laws and housing covenants to live.[37] Even those who live in the suburbs, once largely populated only by White people, tend to live in suburbs that are mostly populated by Black people.[38] Some two million African American young people attend schools whose student body is composed almost entirely of students of color.[39] During the late 1960s and early 1970s, efforts to tackle these problems were stymied by large-scale public opposition, not just in the South, but across the nation. Attempts to integrate public schools through the use of busing—transporting students from one segregated neighborhood to another to achieve more racially balanced schools—were particularly unpopular and helped contribute to “White flight” from cities to the suburbs.[40] This White flight created de facto segregation, a form of segregation that results from the choices of individuals to live in segregated communities without government action or support.

Today, a lack of well-paying jobs in many urban areas, combined with the poverty resulting from the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow era terror, and persistent racism, has trapped many Black people in under-served neighborhoods with markedly lower opportunity and life expectancy.[41] While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created opportunities for members of the Black middle class to advance economically and socially, and to live in the same neighborhoods as the White middle class did, their departure left many Black neighborhoods mired in poverty and without the strong community ties that existed during the era of legal segregation. Many of these neighborhoods continue to suffer from high rates of crime and violence.[42] Police also appear, consciously or subconsciously, to engage in racial profiling: singling out Black people (and Latino people) for greater attention than members of other racial and ethnic groups, as former FBI director James B. Comey and former New York police commissioner Bill Bratton have admitted.[43] When incidents of real or perceived injustice arise, as recently occurred after a series of deaths of Black people at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Louisville, Kentucky; and Minneapolis, Minnesota, many African Americans turn to the streets to protest because they feel abandoned or ignored by politicians of all races.

Group of people holding confederate flags and a Nazi flag
Figure 7. As part of the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017, White supremacists and other alt-right groups prepare to enter Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying Nazi and Confederate flags. The rally was planned in part as a response to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the park earlier that year. (credit: Anthony Crider)

While the public mood may have shifted toward greater concern about economic inequality in the United States, substantial policy changes to immediately improve the economic standing of African Americans in general have not followed. The Obama administration proposed new rules under the Fair Housing Act that were intended to lead to more integrated communities in the future; however, the Trump administration repeatedly sought to weaken the Fair Housing Act, primarily through lack of enforcement of existing regulations.[44] Meanwhile, grassroots movements to improve neighborhoods and local schools have taken root in many Black communities across America, and perhaps in those movements is the hope for greater future progress.

Other recent movements are more troubling, notably the increased presence and influence of White nationalism throughout the country. This movement espouses White supremacy and does not shrink from the threat or use of violence to achieve it. Such violence occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when various White supremacist groups and alt-right forces joined together in a “Unite the Right” rally. This rally included chants and racial slurs against African Americans and Jews. Those rallying clashed with counter-protestors, one of whom died when an avowed Neo-Nazi deliberately drove his car into a group of peaceful protestors. He has since been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his actions. This event sent troubling shockwaves through U.S. politics, as leaders tried to grapple with the significance of the event. President Trump took some heat for suggesting that “good people existed on both sides of the clash.”[45]


Affirmative Action

One of the major controversies regarding race in the United States today is related to affirmative action, the practice of ensuring that members of historically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups have equal access to opportunities in education, the workplace, and government contracting. The phrase affirmative action originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 11246, and it has drawn controversy ever since. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment, and Executive Order 11246, issued in 1965, forbade employment discrimination not only within the federal government but by federal contractors and contractors and subcontractors who received government funds.

Clearly, Black people, as well as other groups, have been subject to discrimination in the past and present, limiting their opportunity to compete on a level playing field with those who face no such challenge. Opponents of affirmative action, however, point out that many of its beneficiaries are ethnic minorities from relatively affluent backgrounds, while White and Asian Americans who grew up in poverty are expected to succeed despite facing challenges related to their socioeconomic status and those related to educational issues in lower income areas.

Because affirmative action attempts to redress discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, it is generally subject to the strict scrutiny standard, which means the burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate the necessity of racial discrimination to achieve a compelling governmental interest. In 1978, in Bakke v. California, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action and said that colleges and universities could consider race when deciding whom to admit but could not establish racial quotas.[46] In 2003, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Bakke decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which said that taking race or ethnicity into account as one of several factors in admitting a student to a college or university was acceptable, but a system setting aside seats for a specific quota of minority students was not.[47] All these issues are back under discussion in the Supreme Court with the re-arguing of Fisher v. University of Texas.[48] In Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, known as Fisher I), University of Texas student Abigail Fisher brought suit to declare UT’s race-based admissions policy as inconsistent with Grutter. The court did not see the UT policy that way and allowed it, so long as it remained narrowly tailored and not quota-based. Fisher II (2016) was decided by a 4–3 majority. It allowed race-based admissions but required that the utility of such an approach had to be re-established on a regular basis.

In 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard and University of North Carolina. The plaintiffs alleged that the Harvard deliberately lowered various ratings of Asian American and White applicants, and that UNC used race as a central—not “plus”—factor in admissions, both of which amounted to violations of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, overruling Grutter and Bakke. One immediate outcome was increased scrutiny—including lawsuits—regarding policies of legacy admissions preferences, which favor White applicants and those with higher socioeconomic status.61

Should race be a factor in deciding who will be admitted to a particular college? Why or why not?


See the Chapter 5.2 Review for a summary of this section, the key vocabulary, and some review questions to check your knowledge.

  1. Lucia Stanton. 2008. "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery,"
  2. "How Did Slavery Disappear in the North?" (April 10, 2016); Nicholas Boston and Jennifer Hallam, "The Slave Experience: Freedom and Emancipation," (April 10, 2016).
  3. Eric Foner. 1970. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 28, 50, 54.
  4. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
  5. David M. Potter. 1977. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper & Row, 45.
  6. David Herbert Donald. 1995. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 407.
  7. Erik Foner. 1988. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 524–527.
  8. Ibid., 595; Alexander Keyssar. 2000. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 105–106.
  9. Keyssar, 114–115.
  10. Keyssar, 111–112.
  11. Kimberly Sambol-Tosco, "The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, and Culture," (April 10, 2016).
  12. Keyssar, 112.
  13. Alan Greenblat, "The Racial History of the ‘Grandfather Clause," NPR Code Switch, 22 October 2013.
  14. Keyssar, 111.
  15. Keyssar, 247.
  16. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
  17. "NAACP: 100 Years of History," (April 10, 2016).
  18. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).
  19. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
  20. "Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom," (April 10, 2016).
  21. Jason Sokol. 2006. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 116–117.
  22. Ibid., 118–120.
  23. Ibid., 120, 171, 173.
  24. Robert M. Fogelson. 2005. Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870–1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 102–103.
  25. Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).
  26. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).
  27. Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966).
  28. "Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869–1948)," (April 10, 2016); "Nixon, E. D. (1899–1987)," (April 10, 2016).
  29. Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946).
  30. See Lynne Olson. 2002. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830–1970. New York: Scribner, 97; D. F. Gore et al. 2009. Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: New York University Press; Raymond Arsenault. 2007. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  31. See Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964), which built on Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942).
  32. See David Garrow. 1978. Protest at Selma. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; David J. Garrow. 1988. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. London: Jonathan Cape.
  33. Keyssar, 263–264.
  34. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
  35. Adam Liptak, "Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act," The New York Times, 25 June 2013.; Wendy R. Weiser and Erik Opsal, "The State of Voting in 2014," Brennan Center for Justice, 17 June 2014.
  36. Louis E. Lomax. 1963. When the Word is Given: A Report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and the Black Muslim World. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 173–174; David Farber. 1994. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 207.
  37. Dan Keating, "Why Whites Don’t Understand Black Segregation," Washington Post, 21 November 2014.
  38. Alana Semuels, "White Flight Never Ended," The Atlantic, 30 July 2015.
  39. Lindsey Cook, "U.S. Education: Still Separate and Unequal," U.S. News and World Report, 28 January 2015.
  40. Sokol, 175–177.
  41. Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh, "Examining the Black-white Wealth Gap," Brookings, 27 February 2020, black-white-wealth-gap/.
  42. Jacqueline Jones. 1992. The Dispossessed: America’s Underclasses From the Civil War to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 274, 290–292.
  43. James B. Comey. February 12, 2015. "Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race" (speech).
  44. Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Binyamin Appelbaum. 8 July 2015. "Obama Unveils Stricter Rules against Segregation in Housing." New York Times. Tracy Jan. 24 December 2018. "Ben Carson’s HUD Dials Back Investigations into Housing Discrimination." Washington Post. Diane Yentel. 23 August 2018. "Trump Administration Continues to Undermine Fair Housing Act." The Hill.
  45. Politico Magazine. 12 August 2018. "What Charlottesville Changed." Politico.
  46. Bakke v. California, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
  47. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
  48. Fisher v. University of Texas, 570 U.S. ___ (2013); Fisher v. University of Texas, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).


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The African American Struggle for Equality Copyright © 2022 by Lumen Learning and OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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