This 1933 map produced by Home Owners’ Loan Corporation shows redlining of McKees Rocks and Stowe neighborhoods. The yellow sections indicate “definitely declining” housing stocks while red designates “hazardous” living conditions.
By Jamie Wiggan
A recent spree of unwarranted Black deaths have reawakened America to its legacy of racial injustice, will it lead to real change?
Beginning with a constitution that calculated slaves as three-fifths of a human, the gradual passage of new laws has ensured Black Americans now possess the same legal rights as the white majority, but the reality of injustice lingers.
The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted citizenship and basic civil rights to the descendants of those first brought here as African slaves in the early 1600s. Passed in 1868, the amendment came three years after the 13th — which abolished slavery — and two years before the 15th, which gave Black men the right to vote.
The amendment begins with a declaration of equality: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
The text continues over four additional paragraphs and concludes with a provision empowering Congress to overrule state laws imposing inequality. Long ignored, this provision eventually paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But for another 96 years, the prevailing force of racism held down the weak legal scaffolding, and legalized racism prevailed.
States found they could bypass the 14th Amendment and enforce segregation by claiming to maintain “separate but equal” systems for Black and white residents.
Known as the Jim Crow era, the spread of legalized segregation began immediately after the Civil War.
In 1892, a bi-racial man, Homer Adolph Plessy, tested its legality by attempting to ride in the white-only section of a Louisiana train. The case eventually wound up in the United States Supreme Court, which ruled against Plessy and set a precedent for enforced segregation at the state level in spite of the 14th amendment.
Continuing 100 years after the Civil War, all across the South, restaurants, schools, hospitals and public transport all maintained separate facilities for Black people. Though not legally enforced in Northern states, a de facto system of segregation remained there.
Credited with dragging America out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation implemented from 1933 to 1939 also contained a sinister side.
In a program directed at the housing crisis, the federal government backed mortgage companies in lending to home-buyers in a selection of approved neighborhoods throughout the country.
The agency charged with overseeing the program, Home Owners' Loan Corporation, came up with standardized assessment procedures for neighborhood property values that counted Black or foreign-born inhabitants as negative factors. Many predominantly African-American communities were consequently denied support.
Even after the government dropped the program, many banks continued to deny mortgages to buyers in minority communities.
On Dec. 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to yield her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Several days later, a group of Montgomery activists led by Martin Luther King Jr. launched a year-long boycott of Montgomery’s bussing system, which led to a federal court ruling against the city’s practice of segregation. The ruling, upheld by the United States Supreme Court, was based on the long-ignored provisions of the 14th Amendment.
King’s success propelled him to the forefront of the civil rights movement, where he captured the world’s attention through a relentless succession of firm but non-violent protests. The movement culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally made real the 14th Amendment’s call for racial equality.
King was assassinated four years later.
• April 9, 1865: Civil War ends
• Dec. 5, 1865: 13th Amendment abolishes slavery
• July 9, 1868: 14th Amendment grants Black Americans citizenship
• Feb. 3, 1870: 15th Amendment gives Black Americans right to vote
• June 7, 1892: Homer Adolph Plessy attempts to ride in the white-only section of a Louisiana train
• May 18, 1896: The United States Supreme Court rules against Plessy on the basis he was permitted “separate, but equal” treatment in the Black-only portion of the train.
• June 13, 1933: FDR established Home Owners' Loan Corporation prioritizing mortgage lending to white neighborhoods
• Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to yield her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala.
• Dec. 5, 1955: Protestors led by Martin Luther King Jr. begin year-long boycott of Montgomery’s public bussing system.
• Dec. 20, 1956: Citing the 14th Amendment, the US Supreme Court rules against the City of Montgomery’s segregated bussing.
• July 2, 1964: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into federal law.
• April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. at the age of 39.
• June 19, 2018: Antwon Rose Jr., 17, is shot dead by an East Pittsburgh police officer while attempting to flee. The officer was acquitted of criminal homicide charges.
• May 25, 2020: 46-year old Black man George Floyd dies after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes.