History of Affirmative Action in the US


Authored by Donna Johnson in History
Published on 09-26-2009

Even though the United States was founded on the premise that “all men are created equal”, this was not the case in actual day-to-day life. White men were the only group of people who had any rights to speak of in the early days of United States history. This unequal distribution of rights began to change slowly when the affirmative action movement began.

Affirmative action is a movement designed to stop discrimination based on race, national origin, gender, or religion. Although it was not called by this name at the time, affirmative action can be said to have begun with three amendments to the US Constitution in the 1800s. The first of these amendments, the 13th Amendment, ended slavery in 1865. This meant that black people were now free, but they still weren’t considered citizens at that time. In 1868, the 14th Amendment defined a US citizen as anyone born or naturalized in the United States. However, this amendment still only granted male citizens the right to vote. In 1870, the 15th Amendment clarified that voting rights could not be denied to any citizen based on race, color, or past as a slave, but still did not give women the right to vote.

In 1896, the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v Ferguson defined black people as “separate but equal”. This decision was actually a step backwards for affirmative action, as it led to the so-called “Jim Crow” laws that were found in the South. Jim Crow laws called for separate eating, drinking, and restroom facilities for whites and blacks, as well as separate schools and seating on public transportation.

Things remained basically unchanged until the first half of the 20th century. Then in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution finally granted women the right to vote in all US elections. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman spoke against discrimination in hiring procedures in the 1940s and 1950s. But the next real changes for affirmative action began in 1954.

The 1954 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v Board of Education overturned the decision of the Plessy v Ferguson case, and led to the integration of schools and other public places nationwide. The Jim Crow era slowly began to come to an end in the South as a result of this ruling as well.

Several Executive Orders in the 1960s further sought to end discrimination in employment and voting procedures. President John F. Kennedy coined the term “affirmative action” in his 1961 order. President Lyndon B. Johnson included women in his order in 1965.

Although discrimination still exists today and cases involving discrimination for various reasons continue to be brought before the US courts, discrimination is much less widespread than it has ever been. The affirmative action movement has gone to great lengths to ensure that every US citizen is treated as though he or she is truly “created equal” as stated in the US Constitution. Affirmative action has brought about changes in the United States that have affected all US citizens and will continue to do so in the future.


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