In the years immediately following the Civil War, Reconstruction era legislation, including the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, granted African Americans full citizenship and voting rights. However, the Compromise of 1877 and the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes essentially ended Reconstruction and launched a new era of white supremacy, particularly in the South. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate facilities for blacks and whites did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court's ruling became known as the "separate but equal" doctrine, and segregation became sanctioned by law.
By 1910, all of the former Confederate states had adopted segregation laws designed to dismantle Reconstruction and restore the social codes of the antebellum South. For example, segregated pubic facilities meant substandard accommodations for African Americans; education and employment discrimination severely limited their economic prospects. Random registration tests and poll taxes prevented black citizens from voting for change and blocked their access to the political process. Segregation was strictly enforced by local government legislation, police brutality, and the rise of white terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
This system of white supremacy and legalized segregation seemed impermeable until the late 1930s, when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund began formally challenging the constitutionality of segregation in the courts, and winning key cases to desegregate law schools and universities.
Perhaps the most significant shift occurred in the 1940s and early 1950s as black veterans returned from World War II and the Korean War to a country that denied them citizenship rights at home. Civil rights leaders used the popular rhetoric of freedom to attack the system of white supremacy in general, and legalized segregation in particular. Some southern states, like Arkansas, witnessed an increase in black voter registration and the integration of public parks. Other states, like Alabama, resisted racial equality by reinforcing the already strict limitations on African Americans. It is notable that Birmingham felt the need to amend its statues to prohibit the race from playing sports together -- a response to the growing integration of professional sports teams.
During the Civil Rights movement, Birmingham's detailed segregation ordinances provided a legal tool for punishing civil rights activists. During the sit-ins of 1961 and 1962, students in Birmingham and other cities across the South were arrested for violating city ordinances that prohibited blacks and whites from sitting together at restaurants and department store lunch counters. But because they contradicted the basic tenets of the Constitution and defied recent Supreme Court rulings, the ordinances had limited jurisdiction.
James Gober and nine other black students who were arrested in Birmingham filed a class action lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinances they were accused of violating. The NAACP combined Gober v. City of Birmingham with four other cases of segregation violations. That case, Peterson v. City of Greenville (South Carolina), was argued by NAACP attorney Constance Baker Motley in its appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
On May 20, 1963, at the height of civil rights activism in Birmingham, the Supreme Court ruled in Peterson v. Greenville that segregation ordinances were unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: "When a state agency passes a law compelling persons to discriminate against other persons because of race, and the State's criminal processes are employed in a way which enforces the discrimination mandated by that law, such a palpable violation of the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be saved. . . ."