After the abolition of slavery in the United States, three Constitutional amendments were passed to grant newly freed African Americans legal status: the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth provided citizenship, and the Fifteenth guaranteed the right to vote. In spite of these amendments and civil rights acts to enforce the amendments, between 1873 and 1883 the Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions that virtually nullified the work of Congress during Reconstruction. Regarded by many as second-class citizens, blacks were separated from whites by law and by private action in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, prisons, armed forces, and schools in both Northern and Southern states. In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned legal separation of the races by its ruling in H.A. Plessy v. J.H. Ferguson, which held that separate but equal facilities did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
Beginning in 1909, a small group of activists organized and founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They waged a long struggle to eliminate racial discrimination and segregation from American life. By the middle of the twentieth century their focus was on legal challenges to public-school segregation. Two major victories before the Supreme Court in 1950 led the NAACP toward a direct assault on Plessy and the so-called “separate-but-equal” doctrine.