As Reconstruction ended, an extremely difficult period began for African American citizens. For protection of their civil rights, blacks were forced to rely on state governments controlled by persons who openly opposed the existence of those rights. The federal government increasingly withdrew from issues concerning the rights of African Americans, and the executive and judicial branches tended to support the Southern white position. The disfranchisement of blacks that had begun in the South with illegal harassment and violence soon after the war was almost complete by the early years of the 20th century. Many Southern states instituted poll taxes, literacy tests, and the so-called grandfather clause as a means of barring African Americans from voting while allowing white suffrage to continue. The success of these efforts is attested to by the decline in registered black voters in Alabama from 181,471 in 1900 to 3,000 as a result of constitutional changes effected in 1901. Similar action in Louisiana reduced registered blacks from 130,334 in 1896 to 1,342 in 1904.

The radical curtailment of African American voting rights in the South facilitated the institutionalized separation of blacks from whites in various aspects of everyday life. Blacks were excluded from participation on juries and were refused service in hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. They were forced to occupy separate sections in vehicles of public transportation and in public gathering places, and separate educational systems were provided for each race. By the outbreak of World War I, so-called Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation of blacks and whites, existed throughout the South. Jim Crow existed in other parts of the United States as well, either by law as in the South or by local practice.

The judicial stamp of approval for Jim Crow came in 1896 with the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, whereby the U.S. Supreme Court declared constitutional a Louisiana law requiring separation by race on railroad coaches. The court held that enforcing such separation was a legitimate use of the police power of the states so long as equal facilities were provided. Such facilities for African Americans were invariably inferior to those for whites, however. This inequality was perhaps most devastating in the area of education. As late as the start of World War II certain Southern school districts did not provide 12 years of public education for blacks. In addition, blacks frequently suffered discrimination in the distribution of tax moneys for support of schools. Publicly supported colleges in the South were likewise few and of poor quality.

The powerlessness of African Americans during the post-Reconstruction period is exemplified in the high incidence of lynchings (3,402) that occurred between 1882 and 1938. The several attempts to secure passage of a federal antilynching bill during this period were all unsuccessful. In spite of efforts by Southern whites to suppress blacks politically and to deny them social equality, the activities and efforts of blacks after Reconstruction to improve their economic condition and exercise their political rights met with some measure of success. In 1870, 80% of the African American population over 10 years of age was illiterate; by 1900 illiteracy among blacks was reduced by almost 50%. Farm ownership, although still low, increased significantly; by 1901 about 25% of black farmers in the South owned their own land. Seven blacks were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for a cumulative total of 13 terms between 1877 and 1901, and Jim Crow legislation was challenged in the courts, albeit unsuccessfully.

A variety of organizations sought to advance the rights of African Americans, the best known among them being the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909. One of its founders, William E. B. Du Bois, was the leading spokesperson for full and immediate rights for blacks. In spite of his and other efforts directed toward full racial equality during this period, historians have generally focused on the accommodation of African Americans to post-Reconstruction racism. The accommodation espoused by some blacks was symbolized in the activities of the black educator Booker T. Washington, who cautioned blacks to be patient and to work hard toward attaining economic equality before striving for civil rights. His ideas fitted well with the views of many conservative whites but were opposed by many black leaders, among them Du Bois.