After Reconstruction, states in the South passed laws that barred African Americans from voting and segregated schools, restaurants, and public accommodations. 

Overview

  • Jim Crow laws were laws created by white southerners to enforce racial segregation across the South from the 1870s through the 1960s.
  • Under the Jim Crow system, “whites only” and “colored” signs proliferated across the South at water fountains, restrooms, bus waiting areas, movie theaters, swimming pools, and public schools. African Americans who dared to challenge segregation faced arrest or violent reprisal.
  • In 1896, the Supreme Court declared Jim Crow segregation legal in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The Court ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations African Americans were permitted under the Constitution.

Jim Crow: a symbol for racial segregation

Jim Crow segregation was a way of life that combined a system of anti-black laws and race-prejudiced cultural practices. The term "Jim Crow" is often used as a synonym for racial segregation, particularly in the American South. The Jim Crow South was the era during which local and state laws enforced the legal segregation of white and black citizens from the 1870s into the 1960s. In the Jim Crow South, it was illegal for black Americans to ride in the front of public buses, eat at a “whites only” restaurant, or attend a “white” public school.1^1
There was also a subtler, social dimension to Jim Crow, which required that African Americans demonstrate subservience and inferiority to whites at all times. A black man who succeeded in business might find his shop burned to the ground by jealous whites. A black woman who failed to step off of the sidewalk to make way for a white man might be fired by her employer the following day. A black man who had a relationship with a white woman might be hanged in the middle of town. Most Southern whites interpreted any claim to pride or equality by African Americans as an affront.
The term Jim Crow originated from the name of a black character from early- and mid- nineteenth century American theater. Crows are black birds, and Crow was the last name of a stock fictional black character, who was almost always played onstage by a white man in wearing blackface makeup. Due to the prevalence of this character, "Jim Crow" became a derogatory term for people of African descent.2^2
Painting of white man Thomas Rice with face painted black, in a manner suggesting he is dancing. He is surrounded by painted animals, including apes carrying umbrellas, and theatre curtains.
Image of the character of Jim Crow, as portrayed by Thomas Rice, a famous blackface minstrel (a white theater performer who painted his face in black makeup to caricature African Americans). Image courtesy BlackPast.org.
From the late 1800s, the name Jim Crow came to signify the social and legal segregation of black Americans from white. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, whites disenfranchised black men (by means of the poll tax, literacy test, and more), frequently relegated black workers to low-paying jobs, and poorly funded public schools for black children. In this way, whites in the Jim Crow South crafted a bitter web of political, economic, and social barriers to full and equal citizenship for their fellow black citizens.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Rosa Parks wasn't the first person to challenge segregated transportation. More than fifty years earlier, an African American man from New Orleans named Homer Plessy challenged segregated train cars. In 1892, Plessy boarded a "whites-only" compartment on a train, and was arrested when he refused to move to a "colored" compartment when called upon to do so. (Plessy planned to be arrested, intending to test the constitutionality of Louisiana's segregation law by arguing that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law for all citizens).
Plessy's case against segregation wound its way through the court system, finally arriving in the Supreme Court in 1896. In a majority decision, the Court ruled that Louisiana's segregation law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment so long as separate accommodations for whites and blacks were equal.
Summarizing the majority ruling, Justice Henry Brown wrote, "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." 3^3
The Plessy ruling rendered racial segregation legal throughout the United States. Although Jim Crow segregation was practiced most fiercely in the Deep South, some segregationist practices, especially housing and job discrimination, existed elsewhere in the United States as well.
Photograpph of a young African American man drinking out of a "colored" fountain. Oklahoma, 1939.
An African American man drinks out of a "colored" water cooler. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The end of Jim Crow

Jim Crow segregation came under increasing attack following the Second World War. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color-line in baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order officially desegregating the US armed forces.
But it was not until 1954 that the Plessy decision was overturned in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated facilities were "inherently unequal." Throughout the 1960s, thanks to the work of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow was dismantled piece by piece, through legislation that made it illegal to segregate public facilities, suppress voting, discriminate in housing, or prohibit interracial marriage.4^4

What do you think?

Can you define Jim Crow segregation in your own words and give one example of it?
The Declaration of Independence declares “all men are created equal.” So how could whites justify imposing Jim Crow laws across the South?
How do you think Jim Crow segregation affected the lives of African Americans? How would you have felt if you had been subject to the economic, social, personal, and cultural effects of Jim Crow laws?
Article written by John Louis Recchiuti. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on Jim Crow, see C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).
  2. For more on minstrel shows, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  3. For Henry Brown's decision, see Justia, Plessy v. Ferguson. For more on the case, see Brook Thomas, Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1997).
  4. For the end of Jim Crow, see Richard Wormser, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (New York: St. Martin's, 2003).
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