'Separate but equal', to 1945

‘Separate but Equal’, to 1945


  • The doctrine of ‘Separate but Equal’ was a central feature of the US legal system until 1954.
  • Although the 14th Amendment granted African Americans equal protection under the law, the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896) upheld racial segregation under the guise of providing ‘separate but equal’ facilities for black and white citizens.
  • This reinforced systemic inequality, as in practice, the separate facilities, services and educational establishments were often of a much poorer quality for African Americans compared to those accessible by white Americans.

Jim Crow Laws

  • ‘Separate but Equal’ policies were codified in state and local laws known as the Jim Crow laws.
  • These laws, prevalent in Southern states, institutionalised a system of racial segregation.
  • They segregated public schools, public places, transportation, restroom facilities and even drinking fountains, often under penalty of law.

Impact on African American Community

  • The ‘Separate but Equal’ doctrine was largely detrimental to the African American community.
  • While ostensibly guaranteeing equal rights, the doctrine perpetuated systemic racism and created a widespread social, economic, and educational disadvantage for African Americans.
  • It created a two-tier society, where African Americans were unequal in practice despite legal equality.

Civil Rights Activism

  • The unfairness and inequalities inherent in the ‘Separate but Equal’ system led to increasing activism and protest among African Americans.
  • One of these activists, W.E.B. Du Bois, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909, with the goal of ending racial discrimination and segregation.
  • The NAACP took on many key roles in fighting segregation and discrimination, such as litigating court cases and advocating for legislative change.

Impact on World War II

  • World War II marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle.
  • African American soldiers fought for their country abroad while facing prejudice and discrimination at home, giving further impetus to the civil rights movement.
  • The return of African American veterans from war helped to galvanise the civil rights movement in the post-war period.
  • President Harry Truman desegregated the US armed forces in 1948, constituting one of the most significant early blows to the ‘Separate but Equal’ doctrine.

Prelude to Change

  • The social and political shifts during and after World War II began to lay the groundwork for the momentous civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 60s.
  • The NAACP’s legal victories, including Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), started to undermine the legal basis for ‘Separate but Equal’.
  • The growing discontent and mobilisation within the African American community heralded the end of the ‘Separate but Equal’ era and paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education judgment of 1954.