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October 18, 2017

Civil Rights and Segregation: 21 Striking Color Photographs Capture Everyday Life in South Carolina in the 1950s

Segregation, the residential, political, and social isolation of African Americans, was accomplished in South Carolina by a long and varying effort in the aftermath of slavery. The de facto, or socially based, segregation of the races was channeled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into a rigid legal, or de jure, system that effectively enforced the second-class citizenship of African Americans. As all-encompassing as the system of “Jim Crow” came to be in South Carolina, it was constructed through a slow and halting process, which black Carolinians contested at every turn.

In late 1956, over the course of several months, LIFE published what the magazine itself described as "a series of major articles on the background of the crisis brought about by the school segregation decision [Brown v. Board of Education] of the Supreme Court... Although the ground that is to be covered in the series is not wholly new to Americans, it is unfamiliar as a subject of moderate and unprejudiced consideration."

The series in question, ambitiously and simply titled The Background of Segregation, explored the emotionally and politically charged issue at a time when the Civil Rights movement was barely in its infancy. For one especially riveting (then, as now) segment of the monumental five-part series, "Voices of the White South," LIFE dispatched the legendary Margaret Bourke-White to Greenville, South Carolina, where she documented citizens from varying walks of life who wholeheartedly—and unapologetically—supported the legacy and the practice of open, legal segregation.

Here, in striking color photographs that, at times, convey an unsettling intimacy, Bourke-White's work opens a window on an era that, for better and for worse, helped define 20th-century America.

African-American maid prepares a white family's supper

Children play in a segregated neighborhood

Young girls listen attentively in a sewing class

Home inspection in a black neighborhood

Generations pass the time on a porch

Mayor Kenneth Cass converses with a Greenville, South Carolina resident

Greenville, South Carolina's mayor Kenneth Cass (above, in tie) at a car wash

Greenville, South Carolina, 1956

Outside a roadhouse

Two black men arrested for disorderly conduct

Three women stand before a magistrate (note pistol in his hand) after a disturbance at a juke joint

A work crew comprised of inmates

White girl lives in a nearby house [and] came out to watch when she saw the gang start work

Greenville, S. Carolina, mayor Kenneth Cass reviews a map of proposed roads in an upper-income housing development

Segregated playground

Segregated playground

Segregated playground

A night out at a juke joint

A night out at a juke joint

A night out at a juke joint

A night out at a juke joint

(Photos by Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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