If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Origins of Jim Crow - Compromise of 1877 and Plessy v. Ferguson

KC‑6.3.II.C (KC)
NAT (Theme)
Unit 6: Learning Objective C
Federal troops left the South after the Compromise of 1877, ending Reconstruction. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896.

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So we've been talking about the system of Jim Crow segregation and in the last video we left off in 1876. And in 1876 there was a contested presidential election between a Republican candidate named Rutherford B. Hayes and a Democratic candidate named Samuel J. Tilden. And in this election there was one of the rare cases where Tilden actually won the popular vote whereas Hayes won the electoral vote. So there's a standoff in Congress for months over how this presidential election is going to end and eventually they make kind of a backroom deal known as the Compromise of 1877. And in this compromise the Democrats and the Republicans agree that Hayes, a Republican, will get to be President of the United States. In exchange the military forces that have been occupying the South, especially the last two states of Louisiana and South Carolina and have been enforcing the 14th Amendment or the equal citizenship of African Americans in the South they're going to leave, they're going to go back to their barracks and will no longer interfere in the political system of the South. So with the Compromise of 1877 the Republican Party which has been standing behind the rights of African Americans, remember the Republicans were the Party of Abraham Lincoln, pretty much gives up as a Party on trying to ensure the racial equality of African Americans. Now why did they do this? Well, I think mainly this was a question of weariness and giving up on their part. Remember that the Civil War ended in 1865, now it's 12 years later in 1877 and there are still Federal troops in the South. So imagine if you were a parent in Massachusetts and you thought that your son who was enlisted in the Union Army was going to come home in 1865 and now it's 1877 and he's still in South Carolina it seems like a long time to fight a war. So that's one part of it. The other part of it is that in 1873 there is an economic panic, this is an early Depression. You know we often think of the Great Depression as the only time the United States was stricken with an economic downturn but before the Depression there were about 20 year cycles of boom and bust. So in 1873 there was an economic bust that meant that people had less money to throw at the problem of reconstruction in the South. And I would say the last part of this is a combination of racism and the new labor movement in the North. So as whites in the North got farther and farther away from the Civil War the animating spirit of abolition started to fade among many Northerners. The late 19th century was an era of increasing racialization especially as new ethnic classes came into the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe and so there was a new interpretation of race that really came to the foreground in this time period which we call Social Darwinism and we'll talk more about that in other videos. But the interpretation of racial difference and hierarchy among the races became more broadly accepted throughout the United States not just in the South. So in 1877 the Federal troops in the South, that are remaining, pack their bags and go home meaning that African Americans in the South have no one to protect them from the Southern governments and so within months many of these governments pass the laws which we now call Jim Crow laws. And these are the laws which prevent African Americans from voting, prevent intermarriage between whites and blacks, and also enact all of these separations of public accommodations that we now associate with Jim Crow, sitting in the back of the bus, using a separate water fountain. Now if it sounds like these sorts of laws are directly in contradiction with the 14th Amendment which says that laws cannot target a specific race, that there's equal protection under the law for everyone born in the United States you're right that's exactly what these laws are. They are a contradiction of the 14th Amendment. And in 1896 a man named Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a white train compartment. You thought Rosa Parks was the first but in fact it's Homer Plessy who tries to desegregate trains. In fact he's trying to test the constitutionality of having segregated train compartments in 1896 and his case goes all the way to the Supreme Court which rules that it is fine to separate the races as long as separate accommodations are equal. So this is the place where separate but equal comes in. Now in theory, separate accommodations for whites and blacks were supposed to be equal, in reality they almost never were and in fact it was the very separation itself that implied the inequality and that is what the NAACP is going to argue in the Brown versus Board of Education case in 1954 which overturns this doctrine of separate but equal. But in-between this period of 1877 and 1954 Jim Crow laws were on the books in all of the Southern states. But I don't want you to come away thinking that things were terrible in the South and that the North was a racial utopia even though segregation laws and violence such as lynching to enforce segregation laws existed mainly in the South, de facto segregation and widespread racial prejudice also existed in the North particularly in housing and job discrimination. And of course, 1954, the Brown versus Board of Education decision didn't end segregation or end racial prejudice in the United States, it's enforcing the end of segregation and enforcing the end of some of these de facto forms of segregation and racial prejudice in the North that will be the real focus of the Civil Rights Movement. So I think the real tragedy of the Jim Crow era was that it didn't have to be this way, in fact, it was just in this presidential election of 1876 that the Federal government more or less gave up on protecting the rights of African Americans. It's interesting to imagine what life in the South might have been like had the Federal government not given up. Perhaps it would be very different, perhaps it would not but it's hard not to mourn the lost opportunity of reconstruction, this 12 year period where African Americans had voting rights and often served in public office. Instead, the United States doomed African American citizens in the South to another almost 100 years of second class status in our society.