The refusal of hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations to serve blacks was not exclusively a southern phenomenon. In the South, however, the practice was an essential part of a system of racial dominance and dependency, long after the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT abolished slavery and the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT recognized the CITIZENSHIP of the freed slaves. Aware of the role played by this form of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION in the system of white supremacy, Congress adopted the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1875, the last major CIVIL RIGHTS act of the Reconstruction era. The law prohibited public accommodations, including railroads along with the types already mentioned, from denying access to any person on account of race. The Supreme Court held this law unconstitutional, saying that when Congress enforced the Fourteenth Amendment it had no power to reach private action. (See CIVIL RIGHTS CASES; STATE ACTION.)
Later came the Jim Crow laws?state laws requiring racial SEGREGATION in all manner of public places, including public accommodations. This practice received the Court's blessing in PLESSY V. FERGUSON (1896), a case involving the segregation of seating in railroad cars. (See SEPARATE BUT EQUAL DOCTRINE.) By the end of the nineteenth century, the denial of access for blacks to public accommodations in the South was firmly rooted in both law and custom.
Soon after the Supreme Court decided BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954), the modern civil rights movement turned to the problem of access to public accommodations. The reason for direct action such as freedom rides and SITINS was not that seats in the front of the bus arrive at a destination before back seats do, or that black college students yearn to perch on lunch counter stools. Public accommodations became a target for civil rights demonstrators for exactly the same reason that they had been made the vehicles for racial discrimination in the first place: segregation and the refusal of service to blacks were powerful symbols of racial inferiority, highly visible denials of the entitlement of blacks to be treated as persons and citizens. Employment discrimination and housing discrimination might touch material interests of great importance, but no interest is more important than self-respect. The primary target of the civil rights movement was the stigma of caste.
Within a few years after the Brown decision, the Supreme Court had held unconstitutional...