I'm trying to find out when racial segregation and specifically "whites only" signs became illegal in the USA.

Researching Wikipedia has not led me to a clear conclusion. It seems like segregation was banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That page states:

It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (known as "public accommodations").

However, the very next sentence says:

Powers given to enforce the act were initially weak, but were supplemented during later years.

So when did racial segregation become illegal?

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    Poor enforcement doesn't mean it wasn't illegal. The fact that there was enforcement at all means it had become illegal...
    – Semaphore
    Mar 21, 2016 at 14:42
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    Are you asking about segregation or about "whites only" signs. Signs with that message are not illegal; making a sign illegal is difficult in the USA (Although a case could be made, I'm not aware that the signs have been declared hate speech). Segregation is illegal; the implementing legislation was passed over multiple decades
    – MCW
    Mar 21, 2016 at 16:34
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    @MarkC.Wallace: "when did those signs stop being widely used?" My question is intended to get to the bottom of when the USA banned racial segregation and hence the practice of "whites only" areas stopped. However, it looks like it was not a single event but the 1964 act was one of the biggest milestones. Mar 21, 2016 at 19:02
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    Excellent summary; you should consider answering your own question. In my opinion, there is a tension between the title of the question and the purpose of your question - the title clearly asks about the signs, but your comments seem to emphasize when segregation became illegal; those are two different things.
    – MCW
    Mar 22, 2016 at 12:44
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    There were racist signs in vidor texas into the 80's. cnn.com/2006/US/12/08/oppenheim.sundown.town
    – ed.hank
    May 26, 2016 at 23:09

2 Answers 2


The thing is, it was never about the signs.

For example, a quick perusal of this Civil Rights Chronology will show you that after the US Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools illegal, it was 3 full years before Little Rock, AR integrated theirs (and then the black schoolkids required armed protection from the US Army to get into the building). Then it was another 23 years later that the courts ruled it was legitimate to effect this by letting kids attend schools outside of their segregated neighborhoods. Housing discrimination, which enforced this neighborhood segregation, was still nominally legal until the Civil Rights act of 1968. However, integrated neighborhoods were still discouraged, both by real-estate agents and by irate neighbors. In Tulsa I lived in an integrated neighborhood in the mid 1970's, but it was the only one.

Signage is a similar issue. Originally the signs wouldn't have been much of an issue. Black people were just supposed to know their place. The signs came up after Plessy (1896), when courts basically ruled that facilities could legally be separated, as long as "equal" facilities were available. So the signs were the legal cover for refusing a facility to a black person.

After Brown overturned that in 1954, this bit of legal humbuggery no longer was valid. Many people who didn't want to serve blacks at private establishments that qualified as a "public accommodation" (eg: stores and restaurants), instead put up signs that read "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason". The 1968 Civil Rights act made it illegal for such places to refuse service based on race, but the signs were still a useful marker (particularly in rural areas) for where blacks are not welcome.

But even without the sign, racists will find a way. Many people would for example just ignore a black "customer" in their establishment, until the person gets the idea and leaves. I had this happen to me at a national chain restaurant in rural Indiana in 1983 while traveling with some black friends.

  • And he had to make this awesome answer smh... great to read +1
    – DnrDevil
    Mar 22, 2016 at 21:50
  • You could try to take a literal answer of "The WO signs were a thing from 1896 to 1954" from this answer. However, there was likely a slow ramp up before and a bit of a decay after. While technically the SCOTUS has the final say, for emotional issues sometimes people drag their feet, so every state law (and sometimes even some new ones) has to get challenged in court after the SCOTUS ruling to get rid of it.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 23, 2016 at 16:31

Illegal and enforcement are different.

Technically it became illegal the moment it was signed into law.

However enforcement of laws are mostly enforced by states for example it is still illegal to be in possession of marijuana throughout the national however (some) states refuse to enforce the law. Even though federal enforcement can still do so for a thing like signs I dont think they would have been enforcement of great importance dedicated to this. Especially in the "northern" states.

  • 3
    Since you brought it up as an example, it turns out that in states that have "legalized" pot, while arrests have gone down, a black user is still twice as likely to be arrested for it. Point being that just because you try to tweak laws to prevent racist practices doesn't mean people won't find a way.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 21, 2016 at 23:19

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