Jim Crow Laws
In 1877, as the Reconstruction era (1865–77), the period following the American Civil War (1861–65), drew to a close, the former Confederate States of America were freed from the control of the federal troops that had been stationed there to ensure the fair treatment of the freed slaves. With the troops gone, Southern whites began to assert policies of segregation (separation of blacks from whites in public places). Although the Thirteenth Amendment , Fourteenth Amendment , and Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had freed African Americans from slavery and declared them citizens with enforceable rights, white Southerners remained unwilling to share communities and facilities with African Americans as equals.
In 1875, Congress had passed a Civil Rights Act guaranteeing African Americans access to public facilities. When some minor efforts were made to enforce the act, southern state legislatures reacted by creating an entire legal system to separate the races in every aspect of daily life. The result was a web of public policies and practices—the “Jim Crow laws”—that relegated persons of color to second-class status.
Origin of the name
Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a white minstrel performer, popularized the phrase “Jim Crow” in 1828 when he created a stage character based on a slave named Jim owned by a Mr. Crow. Mocking African Americans through his presentation, Rice blackened his face with burnt cork Page 830 | Top of Article(“blackface”), donned a ragged costume, shuffled as he danced, and sang “ev’ry time I turn around I jump Jim Crow.” Rice's popular ditty, “Jump Jim Crow,” became an integral part of his routine, and by the 1830s his act propelled blackface minstrelsy into American culture. Somehow, from its stage use, the term “Jim Crow” evolved to refer to the practice of racial segregation.
Plessy v. Ferguson
In the late nineteenth century, the U.S. Supreme Court made two decisions supporting the Jim Crow laws. In 1883, the Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, saying that it exceeded Congress's powers. In 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was legally acceptable.
In 1890, the state of Louisiana had passed a law requiring that “colored” and white persons be provided “separate but equal” railroad passenger car accommodations. In 1892, Homer Plessy (1863–1925), a person of one-eighth African American descent, refused to leave the “white” car on the East Louisiana Railroad. His case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the state law providing for “separate but equal” facilities was a reasonable exercise of state police powers to promote the public good. In fact, the Court went further and held that separate facilities did not have to be identical.
The Jim Crow laws spread throughout the South, requiring the separation of the races in every facet of life, including transportation, schools, lodging, public parks, theaters, hospitals, neighborhoods, cemeteries, and restaurants. Interracial marriages were prohibited. Business owners and public institutions were prohibited from allowing African American and white customers to mingle. Though the law called for “separate but equal,” facilities for African Americans were almost always inferior to those set up for whites.
Although the objective of Jim Crow laws was to eliminate any contact between blacks and whites as equals, the result was to deprive African Americans of key economic and social opportunities, adequate food, shelter, clothing, education, and health care. In addition, between 1890 and 1908, every state of the former Confederacy enacted laws to limit African American voting rights. With discriminatory voting requirements, African Americans (and many poor whites) were effectively barred from participation in the political arena.
Fighting Jim Crow
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), created in 1909, took the lead in combating Jim Crow laws. It brought one lawsuit after another to the courts, disputing the constitutionality of Jim Crow. NAACP successes were few before World War II (1939–45). The turning point came in 1954 when the Supreme Court struck down public school segregation in the case Brown v. Board of Education . Reversing the earlier Plessy decision, the Court asserted that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional in regard to public educational facilities.
The civil rights movement of 1954 to 1965 brought the injustice of Jim Crow in the South to the national attention. Although many white southerners resisted attempts to eliminate Jim Crow, civil rights activists kept up the pressure to end segregation until the federal government finally intervened. The Jim Crow era came to a close with a series of landmark federal laws passed by Congress during the 1960s. The most notable of the new federal laws were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Jim Crow era had lasted from the 1880s to the 1960s. Its legacy was a society still struggling with the effects of “separate and unequal.”