In the 1870s, black men and women might have been expected to look forward to a bright future. But the false dawn immediately after the Civil War soon gave way to nearly a century of legal, economic and social discrimination. Whatever the Fourteenth Amendment may have said about equal protection and citizenship, blacks in America enjoyed few of the blessings of liberty; they remained outsiders, condemned by the white majority as inferior.

By the 1890s, the South had erected a system of legally enforced segregation in which blacks were relegated to a decidedly inferior status, and the Supreme Court had endorsed the notion of "separate but equal," claiming that the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause had never been intended to promote social equality between the races. The separate facilities were far from equal, and beyond that, were designed to keep African Americans in a subordinate position.

Civil rights groups never accepted segregation, and began a long and slow campaign in the courts to do away with it. World War II gave their struggle a new impetus. The fight against Nazi racism made many Americans take a closer look at racism at home, and the nation as a whole finally began taking measures to give African Americans their full legal and civil rights.

It has been a slow struggle, with progress often measured in small increments, but there has been progress, and the position of black Americans today has markedly improved over that of a half-century ago. Moreover, legal racism of the type that kept southern blacks from voting and relegated to separate and inferior schools is gone, wiped out by both court decisions and civil rights legislation.

The struggle for civil rights is one of the great chapters in the history of American democracy, because it has brought millions of Americans closer to becoming fully equal citizens. No one, however, would claim that the struggle is over, or that African Americans today enjoy full equality. The legacy of centuries of discrimination still takes a toll, and the debate today is not over whether blacks should be able to vote or to attend the schools of their choice, but what additional measures, such as affirmative action, should be taken to promote their progress. The answers are neither simple nor clear, but the fact that they are being asked and debated is a key element in the continuing vitality of the democratic process.

  1. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
  2. Harlan Fiske Stone, Carolene Products Footnote (1938)
  3. Harry S. Truman, Executive 9981 (1948)
  4. Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
  5. Cooper v. Aaron (1958)
  6. Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream" (1963)
  7. Civil Rights Act (1964)
  8. Lyndon B. Johnson, "The American Promise" (1965)
  9. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)

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