Desegregation is the process of ending racial segregation, most commonly used in reference to the United States. Desegregation was long a focus of the American civil rights movement, both before and after the United States Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, particularly desegregation of the school systems and the military (See African-Americans in the United States military before desegregation), as was the closely related but somewhat more ambitious goal of racial integration.


Segregation in early America

In the United States, both practices of racial segregation and integration have a long and varied history. Beginning in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, when African slaves were sold to the American settlers by Dutch merchants, these slaves suffered from various social and civil disabilities that were an outgrowth of the institution of slavery. The extent to which white racial supremacy was practiced varied from state to state and its impact was not unchanging over time. For example, the original constitution of the state of Tennessee, adopted in 1796, allowed free blacks the right to vote, while a subsequent one, adopted in 1834, did not.

Abolitionist movement

Reactions to the practice of slavery and what should be the proper response to it were varied, also, among its opponents. Some of those who called for Abolition were equally adamant that upon being freed, Blacks should be transported to Africa (the nation of Liberia was an outgrowth of this mindset), while others called for immediate racial integration to be what took the place of slavery. While the practice of slavery was outlawed in the U.S. after the American Civil War, many of its effects were not.

Segregation after the Civil War

After the Civil War a series of constitutional amendments were passed:

  • The Thirteenth prohibited slavery.
  • The Fourteenth, among other things, granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States.
  • The Fifteenth guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude.

Together these amendments allowed blacks a large role in the political process during Reconstruction. On both a per capita and absolute basis, more blacks were elected to political office during the period from 1865 to 1880 than at any other time in American history. After the disbanding of the Freedmens Bureau and other Reconstruction institutions, federal officials decided that the enforcement of voting rights was strictly a state matter, an attitude not totally discredited until the United States Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 almost a century later.

Racial desegregation was handed a huge setback in 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require facilities to be racially integrated as long as they were "equal", and the "separate but equal" doctrine prevailed for well over a half-century until it was reversed in 1954 by the Supreme Court 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 was founded to foster racial integration and fair treatment toward citizens of color. One of the founders of this group was the brilliant Black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois. Other important groups fostering integration were the Congress of Racial Equality, the Urban League, and, later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Racial integration was also encouraged by the leaders of most Jewish groups and of some labor unions, although other unions vigorously opposed it, especially at first.

Desegregation in the military

During the Civil War, Blacks enlisted in large numbers in the Union Army, particularly in the later stages of the war, but served in segregated units under the command of white officers.

While a handful of Blacks were commissioned as officers in World War I white officers remained the rule in that conflict as well, and carried over in large part into World War II also.

One of the greatest advances for racial integration was the order by President Harry S. Truman to racially integrate the armed forces shortly after World War II, which he had the authority to do under Executive Order without the need for any enabling legislation to be passed by Congress, where it likely would have met with strident opposition, particularly from representatives of many of the Southern states. Richard B. Russell, Democratic Senator from Georgia had in May 1948 attached an amendment to the Selective Services bill then being debated in Congress. The Russell amendment would have granted draftees and new inductees in the military an opportunity to choose whether or not they wanted to serve in segregated units. His amendment was defeated in committee. In June 1950 when the Selective Services Law came up for renewel, Russell tried again to attach his segregation amendment, and again it was defeated. At the end of the month the Korean War broke out and the U.S. Army, which had done very little desegregating since Truman had issued his order, sent the segregated Eighth Army to defend South Korea. Most African American soldiers served in segregated support units in the rear, and the rest 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 pushed the American led United Nations force off the Korean peninsula. Commanders on the ground, faced with staggering losses in white units 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 adaquetly under fire. The Army high command took notice and formally announced its plans to desegrate on July 26, 1951, exactly three years after Truman had issued Executive Order 9981.

Modern civil rights movement

In 1957, in the wake of the Brown decision, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower enforced the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation order by sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas when the Governor of the state resisted allowing black students (known as the Little Rock Nine) to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower used United States Army troops, when Governor Orval Faubus had mobilized troops from the Arkansas National Guard to prevent it, setting a precedent for the enforcement of court orders relating to racial integration by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. (See also: Little Rock Integration Crisis.)

The greatest growth of racial integration occurred 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, the majority of the legal basis for racial segregation was removed and the primary barriers to racial integration remained social and customary ones, which could not be repealed as could laws. As legal barriers came down and members of the races began to interact more freely, the dream of racial integration began to be more of a reality. Still, the United States remains somewhat segregated in housing patterns, although far less so than previously, and very segregated religiously; nearly all of the leading Protestant denominations still have predominantly white and predominantly black bodies, although there is a slow spread of racially integrated ones, particularly among the Pentecostal and community church movements.

In the 1971 case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that forced busing of students may be ordered to achieve racial desegregation. However, school desegregation efforts have since been politically and judicially eroded, such that by the late 1990s U.S. schools were as segregated as they had been in the 1960s.

The impediments to a truly racially-integrated American society now come from many directions. Some are overtly racist white groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which although far less influential than in times past still has many followers of its various factions. Other opponents of integration are Black nationalists and certain fundamentalist religious groups. Moreover, backlash against multiculturalism and general complacency toward U.S. segregation have significantly affected desegregation efforts. Thus, racial integration must be viewed not as a fait accompli in the United States, but rather as work in progress.

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