Together these amendments enabled freedmen to participate as citizens in the political process during Reconstruction. On both a per capita and absolute basis, more blacks were elected to political office (including local offices) from 1865 to 1880 than at any other time in American history. After the disbanding of the Freedmens Bureau and other Reconstruction institutions after southern states were readmitted to the union, in 1877, white Democrats regained power in southern states and passed laws making voter registration more complicated. Although the laws applied to all, the result was that blacks and poor whites were effectively disfranchised. White Democrats then passed Jim Crow laws that established segregation as a principle in all public facilities and aspects of life in the South, for instance, the infamous separate water fountains for whites and blacks.
For years, the Supreme Court upheld state laws related to voter registration and elections, as states had the authority to regulate these conditions. Gradually in individual cases starting in 1915, the Supreme Court ruled against provisions of states' legislation or constitutions, for instance, ruling that the grandfather clause (1915) and white primary (1944) were unconstitutional. Because of the difficulty of litigation and continuing states' attempts to restrict voting by African Americans and other minorities, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect and enforce all citizen access to voter registration and elections, a century after the end of the Civil War.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require facilities to be racially integrated as long as they were equal (the situation was for schools). The separate but equal doctrine prevailed for over a half-century until in 1954 the Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court found that racially separate facilities were inherently unequal.
In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded to secure civil justice, and to foster racial integration and fair treatment toward citizens of color. Black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois was one of the founders, as was journalist Ida Tarbell. The NAACP led litigation of cases to get challenges to the Supreme Court, such as Guinn v. United States in 1915, leading to striking down of grandfather clauses. In addition, the NAACP led an array of public education efforts, continued lobbying of Congress, and encouragement of writing and dramas by African Americans.
Important groups working on social justice and civil rights later were the Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Members of many Jewish groups joined in the struggle, especially among secular groups and Reform and Conservative congregations. Some trade unions supported civil rights, although most unions had historically vigorously opposed entry by black workers, as white workers viewed black labor as competition.
During the Civil War, Blacks enlisted in large numbers in the Union Army. They were mostly enslaved African Americans who escaped in the South, although there were many northern black Unionists as well. More than 180,000 African Americans served with the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War, in segregated units known as the US Colored Troops, under the command of white officers. They were recorded and are part of the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSS) (see External link below.)
While a handful of Blacks were commissioned as officers in World War I, white officers remained the rule in that conflict. The NAACP lobbied the government to commission more black officers. During WWII, most officers were white.
In 1948, President Harry S Truman's Executive Order 9981 ordered the integration of the armed forces shortly after World War II, a major advance in civil rights. Using the Executive Order (E.O.) meant that Truman could bypass Congress. Representatives of the Solid South, all white Democrats, would likely have stonewalled related legislation.
For instance, in May 1948, Richard B. Russell, Democratic Senator from Georgia, attached an amendment to the Selective Services bill then being debated in Congress. The Russell amendment would have granted draftees and new inductees an opportunity to choose whether or not they wanted to serve in segregated military units. Russell's amendment was defeated in committee. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. In June 1950 when the Selective Services Law came up for renewal, Russell tried again to attach his segregation amendment, and again Congress defeated it.
At the end of June 1950, the Korean War broke out. The U.S. Army had accomplished little desegregation in peacetime and sent the segregated Eighth Army to defend South Korea. Most African-American soldiers served in segregated support units in the rear. The remainder served in segregated combat units, most notably the 24th Infantry Regiment. The first months of the Korean War were some of the most disastrous in U.S. military history. The North Korean People's Army nearly drove the American-led United Nations forces off the Korean peninsula. Faced with staggering losses in white units, commanders on the ground began accepting black replacements, thus integrating their units. The practice occurred all over the Korean battle lines and proved that integrated combat units could perform under fire. The Army high command took notice. On July 26, 1951, the US Army formally announced its plans to desegregate, exactly three years after Truman issued Executive Order 9981.
Soon Army officials required Morning Reports (the daily report of strength accounting and unit activity required of every unit in the Army on active duty) of units in Korea to include the line "NEM XX OTHER EM XX TOTAL EM XX", where XX was the number of Negro and Other races, in the section on enlisted strength. The Form 20s for enlisted personnel recorded race. For example, the percentage of Black Enlisted Personnel in the 4th Signal Battalion was maintained at about 14 % from September 1951 to November 1952, mostly by clerks' selectively assigning replacements by race. Morning Report clerks of this battalion assumed that all units in Korea were doing the same. The Morning Reports were classified "RESTRICTED" in those years. (Citations needed from Korean War Records in Kansas)
African-American naval service stretches back to the beginnings of the nation. Thousands of black men fought on the side of rebellious colonists in the American Revolutionary War, many in the new Continental Navy. Their names, accomplishments or total numbers are unknown because of poor record keeping.
African Americans also participated in the Union Navy during the American Civil War. Many were enslaved African Americans who escaped to Union lines. About 18,000 African Americans were sailors with Union forces. They were recorded and are part of the National Park Service's War Soldiers & Sailors System (CWSS) (see External link below.)
In WWII, the US Navy experimented with the USS Mason, a ship with black crew members and commanded by white officers. Some called it "Eleanor's folly," after President Franklin Roosevelt's wife. The Mason’s purpose was to allow African American sailors to serve in the full range of billets (positions), rather than being restricted to stewards and messmen, as they were on most ships. The Navy had already been pressured to train black sailors for billets. Mrs. Roosevelt insisted that African-American sailors be given the jobs which they were trained to do. This experiment was a historic step on the long road to integration.
In 1957, in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower enforced the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation order by sending US Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to protect the "Little Rock Nine" students' entry to school. Governor Orval Faubus had mobilized troops from the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students' entry. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard, as he had the authority to do, and also used the US Army to ensure that the federal mandate was carried out at Little Rock Central High School. Eisenhower thus set a precedent for the Executive Branch to enforce Supreme Court rulings related to racial integration.
Racial integration expanded as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. The best-known spokesman for racial integration during the Civil Rights era was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. As a result of the movement, most of the legal basis for racial segregation were removed. The primary barriers to racial integration remained social and cultural, which were more difficult to change. The United States remains somewhat segregated in housing patterns, although far less so than previously, and quite segregated religiously.
Beginning in Philadelphia after the American Revolution, the African-American community created a separate system of religious denominations, in part because of discrimination. Until after decades of the Great Migration, the overwhelming number of African Americans lived in the South. The black churches grew after the Civil War because freedmen wanted their own organizations. The churches were also an expression of a distinct African-American spirituality. Since then, blacks developed their own churches within nearly all of the leading Protestant denominations. With the expansion of the Pentecostal and community church movements, there has been an increase in non-denominational racially integrated churches.
In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that forced busing of students may be ordered to achieve racial desegregation. However, such court-enforced school desegregation efforts have decreased over time.
A major decline in manufacturing in northern cities, with a shift of jobs to suburbs, the South and overseas, has led shifts in numbers of residents of all races increasing in suburbs, plus major shifts in population from the North to the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and South. Left behind in many northern and midwestern inner cities have been the poorest blacks and other minorities. According to Jonathan Kozol, in the early 21st century U.S. schools have again become as segregated as in the late 1960s.
According to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the desegregation of U.S. public schools peaked in 1988; since then, schools have become more segregated. As of 2005, the proportion of Black students at majority white schools was at "a level lower than in any year since 1968."
Some critics of school desegregation have argued that court-enforced desegregation efforts were either unnecessary or self-defeating. Numerous middle-class and wealthy white people continued moving from cities to suburbs during the 1970s and later, in part to escape certain integrated school systems, but also as part of a suburbanization of the society, caused by movement of jobs to suburbs, continuing state and Federal support for expansion of highways, and changes in the economy.
Sociologist David Armor in court testimony and in his book Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law (1995) said that efforts to change the racial compositions of schools had not contributed substantially to academic achievement by minorities. Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas, in their books A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002) and Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (2005), argued that continuing racial inequality in the larger American society had undermined efforts to force schools to desegregate. They maintained that racial inequality had resulted in popular associations between school achievement and race. Therefore, the achievement levels of American schools were generally associated with their class and racial compositions. This meant that even parents without racial prejudice tended to seek middle class or better residential neighborhoods in seeking the best schools for their children. As a result, efforts to impose court-ordered desegregation often led to school districts in which there were too few white students for effective desegregation, as white students increasingly left for majority white suburban districts or for private schools.
The increasing diversity of American society has led to more complex issues related to school and ethnic proportion. In the 1994 federal court case Ho v. San Francisco Unified School District, parents of Chinese-American schoolchildren alleged that racial caps under a 1983 consent decree constituted racial discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The desegregation plan did not allow any school to enroll more than 50 percent of any ethnic group. Originally intended to aid integration of African Americans, the ruling had a negative effect on the admissions of Chinese students, who had become the largest ethnic group in the district. Asians of all ethnicities comprise more than 50 percent of students in the early 21st century.
Articles in the newspaper Asian Week documented the Chinese American parents' challenge. Since Chinese Americans were already nearly half the student population, the consent decree had the effect of requiring competitive Lowell high school to apply much higher academic admission standards for Chinese-American students than other students. The civil rights group Chinese for Affirmative Action, led by Henry Der, sided with the school district. They argued that such standards were not harmful to Chinese Americans, and were necessary to avoid resegregation of schools. In effect, a ruling designed to eliminate discrimination against African Americans had instead created a situation in which Chinese American students could be discriminated against. Similarly, an organization dedicated to the elimination of discrimination against Chinese found itself supporting a policy that resulted in such discrimination. In 2006, Chinese parents continued to protest race-based school assignments.
The best means for achieving desegregated schools in a society divided by class and, in many areas, ethnic groups, continues to be a matter of debate and disagreement.