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African-American civil rights movement (1896–1954)
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"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."
The African-American civil rights movement (1896–1954) was a long, primarily nonviolent series of events to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. The era has had a lasting impact on United States society, in its tactics, the increased social and legal acceptance of civil rights, and in its exposure of the prevalence and cost of racism.
Two United States Supreme Court decisions—Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which upheld "separate but equal" racial segregation as constitutional doctrine, and Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) which overturned Plessy—serve as milestones. This was an era of new beginnings, in which some movements, such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, were very successful but left little lasting legacy, while others, such as the NAACP's painstaking legal assault on state-sponsored segregation, achieved modest results in its early years but made steady progress on voter rights and gradually built to a key victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
After the Civil War, the US expanded the legal rights of African Americans. Congress passed, and enough states ratified, an amendment ending slavery in 1865—the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment only outlawed slavery; it provided neither citizenship nor equal rights. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified by the states, granting African Americans citizenship. All persons born in the US were extended equal protection under the laws of the Constitution. The 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) stated that race could not be used as a condition to deprive men of the ability to vote. During Reconstruction (1865–1877), Northern troops occupied the South. Together with the Freedmen's Bureau, they tried to administer and enforce the new constitutional amendments. Many black leaders were elected to local and state offices, and many others organized community groups, especially to support education.
Reconstruction ended following the Compromise of 1877 between Northern and Southern white elites. In exchange for deciding the contentious Presidential election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, supported by Northern states, over his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, the compromise called for the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South. This followed violence and fraud in southern elections from 1868 to 1876, which had reduced black voter turnout and enabled Southern white Democrats to regain power in state legislatures across the South. The compromise and withdrawal of Federal troops meant that white Democrats had more freedom to impose and enforce discriminatory practices. Many African Americans responded to the withdrawal of federal troops by leaving the South in what is known as the Kansas Exodus of 1879.
The Radical Republicans, who spearheaded Reconstruction, had attempted to eliminate both governmental and private discrimination by legislation. That effort was largely ended by the Supreme Court's decision in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), in which the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress power to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals or businesses.