From the beginning, RACIAL DISCRIMINATION in America has been a national phenomenon. Jim Crow was a southern name for the segregation of the races as part of a system of caste. But segregation antedated Jim Crow, and it began in the North and the West. The leading judicial decision upholding school segregation before the CIVIL WAR bears a name Northerners prefer to forget: ROBERTS V. BOSTON (1850). Blacks were either excluded entirely from PUBLIC ACCOMMODATIONS such as hotels, railroads, and theaters, or given separate accommodations. They were segregated in prisons and in churches. Several northern and western states even sought to bar the immigration of blacks; such a legal provision was adopted by Oregon voters by an eight-to-one margin.
Nor has this country's segregation been limited to blacks. As late as 1947, a federal court of appeals held that the segregation of Chicano children in a school district in California was invalid. The decision's ground was itself depressing: the state's statute authorized only the segregation of children whose ancestry was Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian.
Still, it was the postabolition South that carried the segregation of the races to its fullest development, and blacks were the chief victims of the practice. Before slavery was abolished, of course, the dominance of whites was assured without any call for segregation. After abolition, the southern states adopted severe legal restrictions on blacks, which served to maintain white supremacy. (See BLACK CODES.) When the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1866 and the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT not only ended these legal restrictions but also positively declared the CITIZENSHIP of the freed slaves, segregation was the southern response. By 1870, Tennessee had forbidden interracial marriages (see MISCEGENATION) and later came the "Jim Crow car" laws segregating railroad passenger seating.
Segregation was not, however, merely a creature of state legislation. It also resulted from private action: a hotel would refuse to take black guests; homeowners in a neighborhood would agree not to sell to black buyers. In such cases law played a role that was less obvious on the surface of events but was vital nonetheless. A black who sought the aid of the state courts in overcoming private discrimination would simply be turned away; state laws would deny any remedy.
Late in the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court gave its support to this system of interlocking discriminations. In the CIVIL RIGHTS CASES (1883), the Court held invalid a congressional statute...