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The formal gutting of the sweeping social and electoral reforms that followed the Civil War were among the most shameful events in American legal history. Here is a brief overview of some of the most prominent turnarounds.
A few months after assuming office, President Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln's successor) overturned the federal government's program of distributing abandoned lands to freedmen. An attempt to divide confiscated land into 40-acre lots and distribute it among freed slaves and Union-sympathizing refugees received a good deal of attention, but it failed to win support in Congress.
The result: The lands of former slave owners went to an emerging white ruling class, and not to the freedmen who had worked them under pain of torture, separation from family members, and murder.
Watering Down the Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution—obviously a measure intended to secure legal rights for African-Americans—was ratified in 1868. It guaranteed all citizens due process and equal protection under the law.
Yet only five years after that ratification, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the amendment applied only to federal civil rights issues, and did not affect “civil rights heretofore belonging exclusively to the states.”
No Civil Rights Law
In 1875, a comprehensive civil rights law went on the books. It guaranteed rights of equality of treatment in public facilities. In 1883, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional. The shift was part of a troubling legal trend.
In the very earliest cases considered by the Supreme Court involving interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the justices construed it as forbidding any form of discrimination of African-Americans sponsored or imposed by a state. The court's 1883 rejection of civil rights legislation, though, suggested a new set of judicial priorities.
Those priorities became even more obvious in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Plessy v. Ferguson
In this infamous 1896 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court examined the right of the state of Louisiana to operate a racially segregated public transport system.
Obstacles and Opportunities
Plessy not only served to justify a half-century of segregation of public facilities in the South, but it also helped to legitimize the political consensus for supporting such legal hypocrisy.
Homer A. Plessy—the plaintiff—was one-eighth African American and seven-eighths white. He was placed under arrest for entering a Louisiana rail coach and refusing to relinquish his seat in the white section for one in the separate colored section. Louisiana law mandated racially distinct passenger compartments in rail transport. Plessy sued, arguing that the Louisiana law violated his constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Plessy case gave the state of Louisiana everything it asked for, and Plessy got nothing. The court held that “separate but equal” facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law because—in the view of the court—the Constitution guaranteed only political, and not social, equality.
The issue of segregation unified the white South as few others could. Loudly ensuring a commitment to separate—and clearly unequal—facilities for African-Americans became Priority Number One for successful southern politicians. (The official ballot logo of the Democratic Party in Alabama, for instance, was a white rooster and the legend “White Supremacy”—a slogan that seemed somehow to hint at political, not merely social, inequality.)