We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of "equal" accommodations...will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.
Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
The "wrong this day done" to which Justice Harlan referred was the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Adolph Plessy, an African American, had boarded a train in New Orleans and seated himself in a "whites-only" car. When he refused to move, he was arrested for violating the "Jim Crow Car Act of 1890." The incident led to the Supreme Court case in which all but Justice Harlan voted against Plessy, affirming the right of states to enact segregation laws. The "separate but equal" ruling set the stage for the rampant racial discrimination that followed in the Deep South.
In many cities and towns, African Americans were not allowed to share a taxi with whites or enter a building through the same entrance. They had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, attend separate schools, and even swear on separate Bibles and be buried in separate cemeteries. They were excluded from restaurants and public libraries. Many parks barred them with signs that read "Negroes and dogs not allowed." One municipal zoo went so far as to list separate visiting hours.
Voting rights discrimination was widespread. In Tennessee, as the Justice Department's John Doar discovered on a self-appointed tour of rural Haywood County, black sharecroppers were being evicted by white farmers for trying to vote. In Mississippi, names of new voter applicants had to be published in local newspapers for two weeks before acceptance, and voters had the right to object to an applicant's "moral character." Black applicants, many of whom were illiterate or poorly educated, were also required to pass literacy tests and to interpret sections of the state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrars. These tests were not applied to illiterate whites. In Alabama, many registration centers were only open two days a month; voting registrars often arrived late and took long lunch hours. In 1957 the town of Tuskegee gerrymandered black residents outside the city limits to make them ineligible to vote. In nearby Macon County, voter registration boards used discriminatory practices such as these to limit the number of eligible black voters:
·holding black applicants to a higher standard of accuracy than whites;
Some counties in the Deep South resorted to harsher means of preventing local blacks from voting. They jailed black applicants and firebombed places where voter education classes had been conducted, such as Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia. They threatened, beat, and in some cases, murdered black applicants.
Southern blacks who resisted segregation, particularly those in rural areas, lived in constant fear--fear of their employers, who vowed to fire them; fear of white "citizens' councils," who adopted policies of economic reprisal against demonstrators; and fear of white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, who exerted an often-unchecked reign of terror across the South, where lynching of African Americans was a common occurrence and rarely prosecuted. Nearly 4,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and the early 1950s.