Jim Crow in the United States: a brief guide to the racial segregation laws

BBC History Revealed shares a guide to the system of racial segregation in the US from the Reconstruction era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s…

Young civil rights activists sit in defiance at a ‘whites only’ lunch counter in Oklahoma City, 1958

Who or what was Jim Crow?

Jim Crow was the name given to the system of racial segregation in the US – predominantly in the South but holding influence all over the country – from the period immediately after the American Civil War (the end of the Reconstruction era) to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

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With ‘separate but equal’ as the guiding doctrine, state and local laws restricted black rights. Black people were denied the vote; educational, economic and vocational opportunities; and basic human dignities. Yet Jim Crow was more than that: it was an all-pervasive way of life to keep African-American people as second-class citizens by sanctioning and normalising their oppression in a post-slavery world, and enforcing that with the constant threat of the law, intimidation, violence and death.

A black cinema in Mississippi, 1939
A black cinema in Mississippi, 1939. The Jim Crow laws dominated virtually every facet of life. (Photo by Marion Post Wolcott/Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

Was there a real person called Jim Crow?

No, Jim Crow got its name from a minstrel routine performed in 1820s and ’30s New York by white actor Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice. In blackface, achieved with burnt cork, he played a pejorative stereotype of a buffoonish black man and would sing a ditty called ‘Jump Jim Crow’. While not the first minstrel show, Rice was hugely popular in the US and even went on tours to Britain and Ireland, which went a long way in seeing Jim Crow evolve into an epithet for all black people – and then the later system of segregation.

 

When were Jim Crow laws introduced? and were they the same as the ‘Black Codes’?

By the end of 1865, the war was over and the 13th Amendment had abolished slavery. But as the process of rebuilding the nation and integrating up to 4 million former enslaved people began, the defeated states of the Confederacy imposed ‘Black Codes’: laws intended to suppress newly freed African-American people by rigidly controlling their work, movement and living conditions. It was slavery by another name.

The Jim Crow laws first came about around a decade later, in 1877. Following years of Reconstruction – when the South was under military occupation and forced to accept the Republican-controlled Congress’s moves to establish the rights of African-American people – the southern legislatures were again firmly in the hands of white Democrats. They immediately set about passing laws to segregate white and black people in society, whether on trains or in schools.

What about the 14th and 15th Amendments?

The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, granted citizenship and protection of equal rights to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, while the 15th Amendment, in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race or colour.

They had been ratified during Reconstruction, as had the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided for equal treatment of African-American people in public accommodations and transportation. Black men also became politically active as they voted for the first time and were even elected to office, from local districts to the first black senator, Hiram Revels, elected in 1870.

But there was fierce resistance from white southerners, holding on to their fundamental belief that white people were superior to black people. The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 declared the 1875 act unconstitutional and state legislatures devised numerous ways to get around the 15th Amendment and prevent black men from exercising their right to vote.

How were black people disenfranchised?

Individual states introduced a host of restrictions and requirements, including paying a poll tax or passing literacy tests, both of which were aimed at keeping African-American people from registering, as they were chiefly poor and illiterate labourers. As they similarly stopped poor white men from casting a ballot, though, ‘grandfather clauses’ allowed anyone whose ancestor had been a voter before the Civil War to forego the fee or test. This could not apply to any black men as their ancestors were enslaved people.

These measures saw the proportion of black voters in the South plummet from 90 per cent during the Reconstruction era to three per cent by 1940. Of course, it was not only the legal requirements that prevented black men from voting. Another brutally efficient method of controlling the black population was through fear.

When was the Ku Klux Klan formed?

A number of white supremacist groups emerged, committed to using intimidation and violence to terrorise black communities in the South. Among them were the more openly operating White League and the Red Shirts, while the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was an underground organisation. It was formed right after the end of the Civil War by Confederate veterans in Tennessee.

Klansmen march through Washington DC, 1925
Klansmen march through Washington DC, 1925. By this time, the KKK had an estimated 4–5 million members. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The KKK would attack and kill African-American people and destroy their homes, but the act of violence that came to encapsulate the horrors of Jim Crow was lynching – a public demonstration of the threat faced by black communities every day. According to the Tuskegee Institute, a total of 4,743 people were lynched between the start of reliable record-keeping in 1882 and 1968 – 72.7 per cent of whom were black. Lynchings overwhelmingly took place in the South with few of the murderers ever convicted.

What was Plessy v Ferguson and the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’?

Jim Crow was given its strongest constitutional backing in 1896 with a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, titled Plessy v Ferguson. A shoemaker named Homer Plessy had invited his own arrest by sitting in the whites-only railcar as a challenge to the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890, which stated that white and black train passengers could not sit in the same railcars. Plessy was one-eighth black, making him ‘coloured’ according to the law.

His lawyers’ case failed, however, as did the appeal to the Supreme Court. Their ruling on 18 May 1896 declared that separate facilities did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as long as they were equal. So, the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine was born. It codified what the South was doing anyway: forming two societies, with the advantaged ruling white class on one side, and second-class, deprived and oppressed African-American people on the other. Separate but equal was the sanction for hundreds of resulting Jim Crow laws.

What did Jim Crow look like from state to state?

Many public spaces and facilities were strictly segregated in all states that passed Jim Crow laws: shops, theatres, libraries, restaurants, toilets, waiting rooms, pools, hotels and water fountains could not be shared between white and black people, or had different entrances for each. Towns and cities were covered in ‘whites-only’ and ‘coloured’ signs. Schools, hospitals, prisons, churches and cemeteries were also separate. In no way were these facilities equal, however, as those for African-American people were nearly always inferior or run-down, if they existed at all.

In many states, interracial marriage was forbidden to prevent what was seen as the ‘mongrelisation’ of the white race; white drivers had right of way on the roads; and black people had to sit at the back of the buses. Each state could pass any segregation law they wanted. It was unlawful in Alabama for white and black people to play cards, dice, dominoes or checkers together, for example. A ‘coloured’ barber could not serve white women in Georgia, while in South Carolina, a law stipulated that custody of a white child could not be given to a ‘negro’.

Women in Fort Worth, Texas, protest against their church being sold to a black congregation, 1956
White women in Fort Worth, Texas, protest against their church being sold to a black congregation, 1956. (Image by Getty Images)

How did African-American people challenge Jim Crow?

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1909 with the aim of offering a truly effective civil rights organisation against Jim Crow. The 20th century saw racial tensions rise as millions of African-American people moved from the South to the North or West, in what became known as the Great Migration. But the North had its own segregation laws and the growth of black communities was not welcomed by all, leading to race riots. In 1919, during the so-called ‘Red Summer’, 25 cities erupted into violence, the worst being in Chicago, where dozens died, more than 500 were injured and 1,000 black families were left homeless.

NAACP members at a rally outside a crime conference in Washington DC
NAACP members hold a rally outside a crime conference in Washington DC, calling upon the US government to take action against lynching, 1934. (Photo by International News Photos/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Yet the history of Jim Crow is also abundant with individuals who bravely took a stand, such as journalist Ida B Wells-Barnett, who launched a campaign in the 1890s against lynching, or prolific author WEB Du Bois. Both were founding members of the NAACP. Another way to fight Jim Crow was to succeed in spite of the adversity, be it in entertainment like Louis Armstrong or Hattie McDaniel – the first black actor to win an Oscar – or in sports like Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, or politics, such as Charlotta Bass, who, in 1952, became the first woman of colour nominated for vice president of the US.

Gone with the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel (right, pictured with Vivien Leigh)
Gone with the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel (right, pictured with Vivien Leigh) became the first black person to win an Oscar. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

When did Jim Crow end?

Much like Plessy v Ferguson establishing the precedent of ‘separate but equal’, it would be a Supreme Court decision that dismantled it. On 17 May 1954, in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, it was ruled unanimously that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, opening the door for schools to be integrated and Jim Crow laws to be undone.

A mother and daughter share a quiet moment outside the US Supreme Court after it bans segregation in public schools, 1954
A mother and daughter share a quiet moment outside the US Supreme Court after it bans segregation in public schools, 1954. (Image by Getty Images)

The next year, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama; a catalyst for a bus boycott organised by charismatic Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr, and the civil rights movement.

You can listen to a collection of interviews with civil rights activists recorded for the BBC series Witness History

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This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine