Racism was widespread after the U.S. Civil War and the end of slavery. Free African Americans struggled to gain a foothold in the United States with limited opportunities to find work or purchase land. Barriers to voting rights, discrimination, and segregation maintained a society that favored white over Black populations in virtually every aspect of life. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling, which decided that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, marked the beginning of a renewed effort to expand civil rights. Marches against segregation and other forms of discrimination led to civil rights progress in lawmaking and court rulings. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were high points, marking progress that African Americans and other disadvantaged groups, including all people of color, made in the 20th century. Still, African Americans, especially, have faced ongoing challenges to their safety and security from both long-standing systems that perpetuate discriminatory policies and racist individuals and organizations who believe that white people are superior to other races and ethnicities.
The period extending after the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), known as the Reconstruction Era (1863–1877), began with a glimmer of promise after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, officially ended slavery, and plans were considered to punish the South for their role in supporting slavery and for seceding from the Union. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, however, his successor, Andrew Johnson—a Southerner from Tennessee— failed to implement a number of measures that would have penalized the South and would possibly have given more opportunities to formerly enslaved people.
Though white Southerners could no longer benefit from slavery, as such, there were other ways they replicated the conditions of the antebellum South. Without resources or education, many free African Americans were forced into sharecropping, a system whereby families received a portion of a landowner's acreage on which to live. Sharecroppers generally harvested crops that went back to landowners as rent. In this way, they were still dependent on other people for their livelihoods. While some Black families left the South for the promise of manufacturing jobs in the North, there were no guarantees for those migrating north that work or housing would be available to them when they arrived.
Over time, predominantly white lawmakers at all levels of government passed racist legislation which increasingly placed African Americans at a legal disadvantage. These were known as the "Black codes."
The Black codes were the beginning of an era of institutionalized racism in America, known as the "Jim Crow" period. (Jim Crow was a minstrel character often used to spoof African American stereotypes in stage performances and in advertising.) But more physical, more violent forms of racism were also occurring. Shortly after the war ended, a group of Confederate soldiers formed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1865. The KKK was a white supremacist, hate group which used terrorism to threaten African Americans. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that among the tactics employed by the KKK beyond mere intimidation and fear-mongering were "whippings, tar-and-feathers raids, and the use of acid to brand the letters 'KKK' on the foreheads of Blacks, Jews and others they considered anti-American."
The Compromise of 1877 ended the Reconstruction period and marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era. The compromise demonstrated how difficult it was for pro-Black allies to develop coalitions that could pass reforms against the perpetuation of racism and discrimination. By 1900, most of the limited progress achieved after the Reconstruction period had stalled out. Free African Americans had very few opportunities to progress socially, economically, or politically. Many African Americans faced barriers to voting. Segregation was prevalent, as separate public facilities—such as schools and restaurants—were established in many areas of the country. The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson upheld segregation, deeming "separate but equal" facilities to be constitutional. Rather than honor a notion of "equality," however, Blacks-only facilities were, on the whole, inferior to those available to whites.
Meanwhile, in the South, lynchings were prevalent in the post-Emancipation decades. African Americans, usually men and sometimes under the pretense of being accused of a crime, would be publicly and brutally executed without trial. In some cases, these murders were publicized as social gatherings: Members of white communities set out with their families to enjoy picnics while witnessing lynchings. In a significant number of cases, white women falsely accused Black men of accosting them as a provocation for a lynching. The practice became less public and less widely reported after the 1920s.
The North was only marginally better when it came to racial progress. During the Great Migration of the early to mid-20th century, many Blacks left the Jim Crow South to seek work in the industrialized, urbanized North. This resulted in overcrowded, racially diverse cities where whites and Blacks competed for jobs and housing. At times, tensions resulted in social unrest, especially white-on-Black violence—which broke out in the cities. Segregation also contributed to a tense atmosphere. The Chicago race riots of 1919, named as such by newspapers at the time, were part of an unusually violent year dubbed the "Red Summer of 1919." The violence was sparked after a young Black swimmer was attacked and died after drifting to the whites-only side of a segregated beach.
Racism occurred across the country through subtler means as well. For example, when World War I (1914–1918) broke out, Blacks were allowed to enlist, but they were not allowed to work alongside fellow white officers. Black forces were poorly armed and trained and were often sent on dangerous missions.
Though African Americans made some economic progress during the 1920s, they were still subjected to Jim Crow laws. Some laws infringed on deeply personal choices in people's lives. For instance, Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act prohibited interracial marriage. The loss of prosperity after the 1920s, with the start of the Great Depression (c. 1930s), inflamed racial tensions even further, as unemployed whites sometimes took their frustrations out on Blacks—some of whom were envied for the low-paying jobs that they held.
New Deal programs, intending to pull the United States out of the Great Depression, favored whites over Blacks with one of the most discriminatory practices, redlining, arising out of this period. Even before the New Deal, white homeowners were often discouraged from selling their homes to prospective Black buyers for fear that property values would go down in their neighborhoods. But now, with redlining, bankers and officials associated with the Fair Housing Authority designated neighborhoods that were primarily African American as risky for loan approvals and marked those areas in red on city maps. Prospective homeowners from those marked neighborhoods were often denied mortgages. The practice violated the spirit of fair housing. The Civilian Conservation Corps, dedicated to stewardship of the nation's forests and woodlands, maintained segregated work forces. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration instituted policies that reduced land acreage, forcing more than 100,000 Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers to find other ways to subsist. White landowners found it more profitable to leave land untilled than to allow its use. Roosevelt, while acknowledging that lynching was inexcusable murder, failed to champion an anti-lynching bill and another bill to abolish the poll tax. Some historians contend that his lack of unmitigated courage in the arena of civil rights was a concession to Southern Democrats who held control of Congress and would have been less approving of Roosevelt's New Deal proposals had he been more strident in his support for expanded rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was more vocal on such matters, possibly because she had the freedom to speak without the political risks that her husband faced.
Civil Rights Era
Significant, if inconsistent, progress on the expansion of civil rights continued after World War II (1939–1945). African American soldiers fought bravely in the Second World War, and their successes ultimately contributed to the decision to desegregate the U.S. Army under President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948. In many cases, however, Black veterans did not return home to the heroes' welcome that white troops received. African American service members returned to the discriminatory home front that still disadvantaged them and limited their prosperity and opportunities.
The brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (1941–1955), who was accused of flirting with a white woman, started a widespread movement protesting against racial segregation and inequality. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant, admitted that the accusations that she leveled at Till, which led to his murder, were exaggerated. Activists, the most famous of whom was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), began protesting segregation more actively in highly publicized, largely nonviolent demonstrations of resistance, including marches. These protests, however, did not stop white supremacists from continuing to perpetrate violence against Blacks. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, in which four African American girls were killed and fourteen others were injured, was one of the most notorious acts of white supremacist terrorism. It was carried out by an emboldened Ku Klux Klan.
The fight for civil rights resulted in a victory in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which segregated public schools were declared unconstitutional. The ruling overturned the faulty "separate but equal" premise on which the earlier, controversial Plessy decision had relied. After the decision, states worked against varying degrees of resistance to dismantle institutions of racism which had been in place for more than a century.
During Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both passed, which extended protections to historically disadvantaged groups, including African Americans. Johnson seized the opportunity to sponsor a wide range of social justice reforms, having assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had been an advocate of the ideals reflected in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prior to his death. Even with the landmark legislation, the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated one aspect of the Voting Rights Act, declaring that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions merit scrutiny in regard to establishing fair voting practices no longer held because of changes that had occurred in populations since the 1960s. As of July 2020, Congress has not yet successfully legislated a new formula to restore that aspect of the Voting Rights Act.
Throughout the 20th century, institutionalized racism persisted as a key factor in the criminal justice system. Organizations and media outlets increasingly tracked and reported on the disproportionate number of convictions and longer sentences of Black people who were arrested for crimes, contributing to the fragmenting of African American families. DNA evidence, available in more recent decades, has led to the release of many people who were wrongly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The racist behaviors of police forces and the inherent biases in the criminal justice system have led many to call the oppression of African Americans in arenas of law and justice the "New Jim Crow."
The 21st Century
A major milestone occurred in 2008 with the election of the nation's first African American president, Barack Obama (1961–present), who took office in 2009. While his victory was met with much fanfare and optimism, it also occurred against the backdrop of "birther" arguments forwarded by unscrupulous individuals and organizations who claimed that Obama was born outside of the United States. The specious argument contended that he was not an American citizen and therefore was ineligible for the presidency. Obama later made his birth certificate public, showing that he had been born in Hawaii.
During Obama's two terms as president, racism and racial violence still occurred. With advances in technology and the ready availability of cameraphones and recording devices, police forces came under increasing scrutiny for incidents in which African American men, primarily, were often targeted for suspicion and subject to disproportionate and, sometimes lethal, force. Eric Garner, who was accosted after being accused of selling loose cigarettes on the street, died of complications related to an illegal chokehold that an officer used on him on July 17, 2014, on Staten Island in New York City. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, led to several days of unrest in that city. Their deaths were among the first of a wave of killings at the hands of police officers, which continued after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 president election. Trump, incidentally, was among the group who sympathized with birther arguments against Obama during his presidency. Victims of killing by police forces in the 21st century include Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy, who was playing with a toy gun in a public park in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 22, 2014; Breonna Taylor, who was shot multiple times by officers in Louisville, Kentucky, who claimed to have entered the wrong apartment during a March 13, 2020, drug raid; and George Floyd, whose neck was kneeled on by a Minneapolis (Minnesota) police officer for more than eight minutes as he told bystanders that he could not breathe on May 25, 2020. Floyd's death led to weeks of social unrest, property destruction, and clashes with police and federal forces in multiple U.S. cities, starting in Minneapolis but spreading across the nation during the summer of 2020.
Individual citizens also committed racially motivated killings. On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman—contending that he had been surveilling his neighborhood out of safety concerns—pursued and shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (1995–2012) and made an argument that he had acted in self-defense after engaging with him. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges. On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, later revealed to be a white supremacist, entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat with church members who were praying before opening fire and killing nine Black congregants.
Incidents, especially the Martin killing, resulted in the creation of a new movement—Black Lives Matter (BLM)—which sought to end police killings and racially motivated violence against Blacks. President Donald Trump (1946–present) has been a target of criticism by the BLM movement as well as other social justice activists. They assert that his administration favors whites at the expense of people of color and immigrants. Indeed, Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election is considered by some to have been a racially motivated backlash against Obama. Trump's pre-election history includes allegations against his family for discriminating against African Americans in the housing market. Trump also took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times endorsing the death penalty for Black and Hispanic teenagers arrested and ultimately imprisoned for the assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park in New York City on April 19, 1989. The teenagers, known as the Central Park Five, were ultimately exonerated after DNA evidence incriminated an inmate, Matias Reyes, already serving time for similar crimes. As late as 2016, Trump remained unapologetic for running the advertisement and still contended that because some of the falsely convicted individuals signed confessions, the sentences should not have been vacated.