|Classroom Activities||Background Essays||Timelines||Freedom & Unity Exhibit||Bibliography||Links|
With the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, racial segregation became legal in the United States. As a consequence, segregation and the "Jim Crow Laws" that outlined black and white behavior in the South established a deep and inequitable social hierarchy that wasn't legally eradicated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This lesson is appropriate for beginning a modern Civil Rights unit, both to introduce students to the racially segregated social mores of southern society, and to expand on their current knowledge of previously learned content about the South, white supremacy, and the impact segregation had on the push towards civil equality in the 1950s and 60s.
What was segregation and in what way did it impact the social status of both black and white Americans in the South throughout the 20th century?
Students will utilize their skills as historians by analyzing and synthesizing various primary documents that surround segregation. They include the following:
“Segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever!” became the rallying cry for pro-segregationists throughout the South in the early 1960s. Espoused in 1963 in the inaugural address of the newly elected governor of Alabama, George Corley Wallace, the cry was a response to a national movement to end the deep-seated racial divide that was at the heart of southern society. When federal troops were used to force the integration of schools, Wallace and other white segregationists viewed it as another attack on state sovereignty and the ability of the white South to retain its racial supremacy. What was segregation and in what way did it impact the social status of both black and white Americans in the South?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, to segregate is defined as to separate or set apart from others; isolate or to require, often with force, the separation of a specific racial, religious, or other group from the body of society. Segregation has been a part of our American heritage, almost from the moment slaves arrived on the shores of the New World. In 17th century Virginia, the theocratic government feared that racial mixing between freed and enslaved blacks and white indentured servants would become a means to usurp government power. They passed laws in which the color line was clearly defined in any criminal punishments. By treating whites and blacks separately and unequally, these Virginian leaders set up a system of white supremacy that would become an essential component of American slavery.
While the Civil War may have ended the institution of American slavery in 1865, it didn’t end discrimination or the culture that harbored the belief in the inferiority of their former slaves. As northern radical Republicans attempted to bring some type of equality to the South through various Reconstruction acts, former Confederate soldiers formed the Ku Klux Klan and used intimidation and violence as a means to retain control over their way of life. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court case Plessy v Ferguson ruled a “separate, but equal” society constitutional. This set the stage for many states in the South to overrule the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed by Congress to protect African American individuals from discrimination. This Act was the last bit of legislation passed during the time period known as Reconstruction, during which a multitude of Constitutional measures were intended to bring equality to the newly freed slaves. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave black Americans freedom from slavery, the right to due process, and the right to vote. It also gave them citizenship and the ability to participate in and have access to all the rights and privileges of an American citizen. This act was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (1883), stating that the federal government can protect political but not social rights. With Plessy v Ferguson, discrimination, educational inequity, economic stratification, and a deeply segregated society placed white Americans in a position of supremacy over their former slaves.
With legalized segregation, “Jim Crow Laws” were passed in the South that insured black Americans remained second class citizens between 1896 and the 1960s. The title “Jim Crow” comes from a minstrel show in the late 19th century in which the white lead actor mimicked the movements and actions of a slave. These Jim Crow laws were supported by the religious and scientific leaders of the time. Though many people are familiar with the image of “separate, but equal” schools, bathrooms, restaurants, hotel entrances and drinking fountains, some may not understand the all-encompassing legal system that created a distinctly separate life for blacks and whites. These codes not only made marriage between blacks and whites illegal; they also made it illegal for blacks and whites to play games such as checkers together, or to read and hold the same books in a library. It was illegal for a white nurse to care for black male patients in a hospital or nursing home. It was even illegal for a teacher in Oklahoma to educate a mixed-race class and was considered a misdemeanor finable by “no less than ten dollars and no more than fifty dollars for each offense”. In Birmingham, Alabama, the city passed segregation codes that designated “white” and “black” residential districts, making it illegal for black Americans to live in the same neighborhoods as whites. When black Birmingham residents bought houses that were considered “too close” to white neighborhoods, their homes were bombed. The bombings became so prevalent that by the 1950s, the area called Fountain Heights in Birmingham became known as “Dynamite Hill.”
While blacks and whites were kept legally separate, there was also a deep and comprehensive etiquette system that ensured white supremacy. For instance, a black man could not shake the hand of a white man (implied equality), nor could a black man talk to or take the hand of a white woman (indicated possible rape). Black individuals always addressed whites with Mr, Mrs, Miss, while whites called black individuals by their first names, or “Tom” or “Jane”, “girl” or “boy”. While black consumers were encouraged for economic reasons to frequent department stores, this strict etiquette would not allow them to try on clothes or shoes in the store before purchase. If a black mother wanted to buy shoes for her children, she had to measure their feet beforehand. In Joanne Bland’s story “The Blue Dress,” a white clerk stated “You have to buy this pair because that little n_____ put her nasty feet in them.” It was unacceptable for whites to touch or be touched by anything utilized by blacks. The irony of course is that it was quite acceptable for a white family to hire a black domestic to cook and clean their homes.
This deep-seated caste system was held to at any cost. Scores of black Americans who attempted to obtain their economic, political and social rights endured beatings, bombings, lynchings and mobs of white individuals who refused to allow black citizens their civil rights. Yet, by the 1950s, black Americans began to make headway in the courts. In 1954, the Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. With great sacrifice, the desegregation process began. In 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott desegregated the city bus system. In 1957, nine black students integrated Little Rock High School. In 1961, Freedom Riders attempted to desegregate interstate bus travel, and 1962, James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi.
Despite all the attempts to integrate southern society, segregation was so ingrained that many whites could neither imagine nor accept a world in which blacks and whites were integrated and interacted on an equal level. The year 1963 became a pivotal moment in the desegregation fight, and nowhere in the South felt it more than Alabama, especially the city of Birmingham. George Wallace not only stated in his inaugural speech that segregation would continue, he also continued to appeal to pro- segregationists by vowing to “stand in the schoolhouse door” while taunting the American government to use federal troops to integrate the University of Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders were arrested for anti-segregation protests—King released his infamous “Letter’s from a Birmingham Jail”—and commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor used hoses, dogs, and imprisonment to stop Birmingham’s children from protesting segregated lunch counters, downtown businesses and their schools. The violence became so intense that on September 15, four little girls died in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and two more young black men died at the hands of whites in the ensuing confusion. In 1963 NAACP leader Medger Evers was assassinated in Mississippi and Dr. King led the March on Washington. Media attention to all these events pressured the American government into action. However, it was not until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that discrimination and segregation were legally ended in the South.
Primary Source Analysis Worksheet Rubric (included in download)
H&SS9-12:8 Students connect the past with the present
H&SS9-12:9 Students show understanding of past, present, and future
H&SS9-12:15 Students show understanding of various forms of government
H&SS9-12:16 Students examine how different societies address human interdependence
Webster's College Dictionary, (New York: Random House, 1996), 1214.
Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Race: George Wallace, The Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008)
Eskew, Glenn T. But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997)
Sound Recording Analysis Worksheet (provided in download from the National Archives web site):
"My Dog Loves Your Dog" sound recording located at Committee for Truth in History: (Click on Downloads and select the first in the list.) On this site, the authors explain the story behind the song before they sing it. If you prefer, you may also find the tune on iTunes recorded by The Nashville Quartet from the Album, "Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement."
Stories of Struggle: Growing up in the Segregated South ( A collection of short stories written by sisters Joanne Bland & Lynda Blackmon Lowery)
Thinking about Songs as Historical Artifacts analysis worksheet: (click on Analysis Tools, then click on “Thinking About Songs as Historical Artifacts”)
Samples of Jim Crow Laws found at: