Major Milestones in Ending Segregation in the United States

Laws explicitly mandating racial segregation came about primarily during the Jim Crow era. The effort to legally eliminate them over the past century has been, for the most part, successful. Racial segregation as a social phenomenon, however, has been a reality of American life since its inception and continues to this day. Enslavement, racial profiling, and other injustices reflect a system of institutional racism that reaches back across the Atlantic to the very origins of the earliest colonial regimes and, very likely, forward into the future for generations to come.

1868: Fourteenth Amendment

The Preamble of the Constitution
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The Fourteenth Amendment protects the right of all citizens to equal protection under the law but does not explicitly outlaw racial segregation.

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson

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The Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation laws do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment as long as they adhere to a "separate but equal" standard. As later rulings would demonstrate, the Court failed to even enforce this meager standard. It would be another six decades before the Supreme Court meaningfully revisited its constitutional responsibility to confront racial segregation in public schools.

1948: Executive Order 9981

President Harry Truman's radio address
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President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, outlawing racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.

1954: Brown v. Board of Education

Monroe School, a Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site

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In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that "separate but equal" is a flawed standard. This was a major turning point in Civil Rights history. Chief Justice Earl Warren writes in the majority opinion:

"We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

The emerging segregationist "state's rights" movement immediately reacts to slow the immediate implementation of Brown and limit its effect as much as possible. Their effort to obstruct the ruling was a de jure failure (as the Supreme Court will never again uphold the "separate but equal" doctrine). These efforts were, however, a de facto success—as the United States public school system is still profoundly segregated to this day.

1964: Civil Rights Act

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act
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Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, establishing a federal policy that prohibits racially segregated public accommodations and imposes penalties for racial discrimination in the workplace. This law was another significant turning point in Civil Rights history. Although the law has remained in effect for nearly a half-century, it remains highly controversial to this day.

1967: Loving v. Virginia

Richard and Mildred Loving in Washington, D.C.
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In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court rules that laws banning interracial marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

1968: Civil Rights Act of 1968

Arthur Bremer leaving court
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Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which includes the Fair Housing Act prohibiting racially-motivated housing segregation. The law has been only partially effective, as many landlords continue to ignore the FHA with impunity.

1972: Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger
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In Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, the Supreme Court rules that public schools may remain racially segregated as a matter of practice in cases where desegregation orders have proven ineffective. The ruling essentially ends federal efforts to integrate the public school system. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the dissent:

"Consistent with the mandate of [Brown v. Board of Education], our cases have imposed on school districts an unconditional duty to eliminate any condition that perpetuates the message of racial inferiority inherent in the policy of state-sponsored segregation. The racial identifiability of a district's schools is such a condition. Whether this 'vestige' of state-sponsored segregation will persist cannot simply be ignored at the point where a district court is contemplating the dissolution of a desegregation decree. In a district with a history of state-sponsored school segregation, racial separation, in my view, remains inherently unequal."

Marshall had been the lead plaintiff's attorney in Brown v. Board of Education. The failure of court desegregation orders—and the increasingly conservative Supreme Court's unwillingness to revisit the issue—must have been frustrating for him.

Today, many decades later, the Supreme Court has come no closer to eliminating de facto racial segregation in the public school system.

1975: Gender-Based Segregation

A demonstration of gender inequality

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Facing an end to both public school segregation laws and laws banning interracial marriage, Southern policymakers grow concerned about the possibility of interracial dating in public high schools. To address this threat, Louisiana school districts begin to implement gender-based segregation—a policy that Yale legal historian Serena Mayeri refers to as "Jane Crow."

1982: Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan

President Ronald Reagan with Supreme Court Justices
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In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, the Supreme Court rules that all public universities must have a coeducational admissions policy. Some publicly-funded military academies, however, will remain sex-segregated until the Supreme Court's ruling in United States v. Virginia (1996), which forced the Virginia Military Institute to allow the admission of women.

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Head, Tom. "Major Milestones in Ending Segregation in the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Head, Tom. (2023, April 5). Major Milestones in Ending Segregation in the United States. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Major Milestones in Ending Segregation in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).