Jim Crow

views updated May 23 2018

Jim Crow






Jim Crow was the colloquial term for forms of systematic discrimination employed by whites against African Americans from the second half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. The expression insinuates the legal components of the color line (e.g., Jim Crow laws), but also encompasses the cultural and symbolic conventions of hierarchical race relations.


The roots of Jim Crow lay deep in the American landscape of slavery. Despite its jocular allusion to a persona, Jim Crow articulated ideologies of black inferiority, which, wrapped in racist rhetoric, signified white supremacy, the control of virtually every aspect of black public life, and access to black private life. As shorthand for the malice of race relations in America, Jim Crow lived out a strange career, the historian C. Vann Woodward (19081999) wrote. Jim Crow did not assign the subordinate group to a fixed status in society. [It was] constantly pushing the Negro further down (Woodward [1955] 2002, p. 108).

The scholar W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963) used the term the veil in reference to the barrier separating blacks and whites. Penetrable but immovable, the veil provided African Americans with a view outward, while limiting the ability of whites to see into black society. Within and without the somber veil of color, Du Bois wrote of black life in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), vast social forces have been at work,efforts for human betterment, movements toward disintegration and despair, tragedies and comedies in social and economic life, and a swaying and lifting and sinking of human hearts which have made this land a land of mingled sorrow and joy, of change and excitement and unrest (pp. 181182). Behind the veil, then, African Americans engaged in the discourse and action of daily life, often unconcerned with white life. Here, they forged lively communities, built strong institutions, and nurtured generations of activists who took part in the long civil rights movement to destroy Jim Crow.

As a period of history, the Jim Crow era can be set off by two significant decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court, each determining the constitutionality of racial segregation. On one end, Homer Plessy v. John H. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896) sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination with the doctrine of separate but equal, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. On the other end of a timeline, Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. 387 U.S. 483 (1954) outlawed racial segregation in public schools arguing that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Brown opened the door to question and to challenge other forms of racial inequity.


Jim Crow far exceeds the temporal markers of Supreme Court decisions, reaching back to the mid-nineteenth century and beyond the modern civil rights movement. Moreover, although Jim Crow is associated mostly with the intractable South, similar patterns, indeed its cultural origins, can be found in the North. The term was being used by the mid-nineteenth century by African Americans and abolitionists to describe the unfair practice of directing black passengers to separate substandard railroad cars. Jimcrow or jimcrowing referred to the injustice of segregating blacks to lesser facilities.

The term Jim Crow originated in American popular culture, specifically in a stage performance, a mocking imitation of a black plantation slave by Thomas Dartmouth Daddy Rice (18081860), a white entertainer. In the tradition of minstrelsy, Rice blackened his face with burned cork or black wax, wore ragged clothes as a costume, shuffled as he danced, and sang:

Come listen all you galls and boys Is jist from
Im going to sing a little song, my names Jim
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Ebry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

A popular little ditty, Jump Jim Crow was a centerpiece of an emerging American popular culture. Popularized, the character Jim Crow and his stage counterpart Zip Coonan urban dandy from the Northcaricatured African Americans as foolish, dim, lazy, sneaky, incompetent, untrustworthy, dishonorable, and without the strength of character required to be an American citizen and white. These degrading stereotypes, infused by distortion and propaganda, provided a substantial base on which to create a rationale for slavery: that African Americans required close supervision, and that only under the control of whites could such people be restrained.

Jim Crow entered a new phase after the Civil War (18611865) with enactment of the Black Codes. At the end of the war, in the political chaos that followed Abraham Lincolns death in 1865, Confederates claimed southern legislatures and passed laws that restricted the freedom of freedpeople. Replicating slavery in all ways except name, the Black Codes required blacks to accept unfavorable work contracts, limited their mobility, and denied them citizenship rights. As traditional powers collapsed at the beginning of Reconstruction, African Americans claimed and exercised the citizenship rights guaranteed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. Southern whites viewed this new societal arrangement as a corruption of race and gender relations that historically favored white males.

At the end of Reconstruction, when power returned to white southerners, distorted descriptions of Reconstruction governments signified whites resentment for their losses and provided the tinder for racial fires to burn through the turn of the century. Referring to black political participation as Negro rule or Negro domination, and distorting the work of Reconstruction legislatures as corrupt and immoral, white politicians determined that black power would neither continue nor return. By the end of the nineteenth century, every southern state and community had forged a set of constitutional amendments, legislation, or legal maneuvers to disfranchise African American men by force of law and intimidation. Almost every school was racially segregated and disparate in condition. Consistently, blacks were employed in the most difficult jobs for the lowest of wages.

As the color line itself solidified at the turn of the nineteenth century, Jim Crow imposed on black people clear tactical disadvantages: restricted economic possibilities, narrow educational opportunities, inadequate housing options, high rates of death and disablement, persistent unemployment, and unrelenting poverty. Inasmuch as Jim Crow represented the race problem described by Gunnar Myrdal (18981987) in his 1944 treatise The American Dilemma, it was Jim Crow that created the race quandary; whites constructed the obstacles African Americans confronted, while also blaming them for their conditions, denying them access to the resources of problem solving, and daring themunder threat of violenceto complain, protest, or advance.

Jim Crow laws segregated not only public venues but also restaurants, restrooms, hospitals, churches, libraries, schoolbooks, waiting rooms, housing, prisons, cemeteries, and asylums. Customary signs noting colored and white or white only marked off the southern landscape, dividing public conveyances, public accommodations, and birth, residence, and death. Purportedly equal, these circumstances usually were unequal. Laws regulated not only segregation but also social relations. In most states, blacks and whites could not marry by law, or socialize by custom. According to a Maryland law, all marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent, to the third generation, inclusive are forever prohibited, and shall be void. Blacks and whites could not compete against each other, whether at checkers or college sports. A Mississippi law read, any person guilty of printing, publishing or circulating matter urging or presenting arguments in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.


Jim Crow could be fluid, amorphous, and nuanced. Because the laws and practices of Jim Crow varied from place to place, the scheme was confusing, and African Americans were careful to learn the racial etiquette of the locales to which they traveled. In addition, different groups of African Americans, rural and urban, women and men, and people of varying classes, experienced Jim Crow in different ways. Inasmuch as women and men faced differential limitations of Jim Crow, civil rights and womens movement activist Pauli Murray (19101985) coined the term Jane Crow to describe sex discrimination against women, and race and sex discrimination against black women. African Americans could not always unify against Jim Crow because segregation could benefit some to the detriment of others. Black colleges thrived, for example, but most segregated public elementary and secondary schools struggled with inadequate resources to prepare students for higher education.

Finally, protests or challenges to Jim Crow often proved futile, given law enforcements complicity in the structure. From emancipation to the turn of the century, the Ku Klux Klan operated as a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party in the South. The Klan, nightriders, red shirts, and other white terrorists intimidated African Americans with personal attacks, school burnings, and lynchings. African Americans rarely served as policemen, sheriffs, or deputies before the late 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s, the connections between municipal and state governments, law enforcement, and racial violence were well known by officials and citizens alike. White officers were known to harass black people, disrupt black neighborhoods, and assault black women. Arrested for inflated charges, denied satisfactory counsel, and serving harsh sentences, African Americans were further disadvantaged in the courtroom. Rarely did they receive good counsel, nor could they serve on juries. When black lawyers could appear in the courtroom to argue cases, white judges and juries rarely listened. All-white juries decided against black defendants, even in the most obvious cases of innocence, but rarely convicted white defendants, despite evidence of guilt. African Americansincluding the innocentsuffered the harsher punishments of extended jail time, forced farm labor, and peonage. Even women could be placed on the chain gangs working the roads and tracks across the South.

Extralegally, Jim Crow justice was rough. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), between 1889 and 1918 over 2,500 African Americans were lynched: captured and viciously murdered by mobs. Ostensibly, accusations of rape provided the reason for lynching, yet rarely were these cases validated. A form of social control and vengeance, lynching followed when a black person stepped out of line, did not demonstrate enough deference, acted out of antagonism, committed assault or manslaughter as self-defense, or spoke out of turn. Through the first half of the twentieth century, furthermore, riots flared as an expression of white antagonism, among them the Wilmington Riot of 1898, the Atlanta Riot of 1906, the East Saint Louis Riot of 1917, and the Tulsa Riot of 1921. In each of these and other conflagrations, whites expressed their racial rage by entering black neighborhoods to assault men, women, and children, and by burning down homes, schools, and churches. African American veterans in uniform also were targets of random attack, subject to vengeance for wearing a symbol of American citizenship.


For these reasons, Jim Crow presented a formidable opponentone that could divide its victims against themselves. Numerous leaders stepped forward to speak to the quandary of race relations. Booker T. Washington (18561915) advised black men to shift their focus from electoral politics to economics, to take up the trades, farming, and domestic and service work in order to build character and capital. While Washington supported industrial education, Du Bois recommended that the most talented of black folk be trained in the liberal arts so that they could emerge as leaders of the race. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (18621931), a fearless antilynching campaigner, took up the mantle of agitation, advising African Americans to protect themselves and to leave the South altogether.

The question of migration as a form of protest dominated black discourse and action after emancipation, and as the century turned, a trickle of black southerners, mostly women, began to leave the land for the cities of the South and the North. They laid the groundwork for what was later called the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the brutalities of the South for the possibilities of the North. Black migrations were fueled by several factors. African Americans hoped to escape the tyranny of the South, especially economic oppression. The importunate character of sharecropping pressed families to give up the land for the city. There, however, they found new sets of barriers to employment or improved living conditions. Nevertheless, as the war economies expanded and European immigration slowed, African Americans found employment in the industries and the trades. Black people also migrated to find personal freedom not available to them in the South. African American women, for example, migrated to escape the persistent danger of public sexual assault by white and private assault by black men. As migrants within the South, women also laid the foundations upon which black southern communities were built, and it is here that the war against Jim Crow took place.

In urban areas, African Americans upbuilt communities from small settlements of freedpeople into dynamic neighborhoods of homes, institutions, and organizations. Although segregated, schools instilled a sense of race pride and responsibility in children. Churches served multiple roles, as community, political, and recreational spaces. Teachers, professors, undertakers, doctors, lawyers, and nurses served to uplift the black community. Held in high esteem, they presented not only models to emulate, but also a daily reminder of black accomplishment despite Jim Crow. National organizations like the NAACP, the National Negro Business League (NNBL), and black fraternities and sororities all functioned to improve the quality of life for African Americans. Founding segregated YWCAs, YMCAs, Boys Clubs, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, adult African Americans supervised the development of young people with an eye toward the demands of citizenship. Indeed, although historians have called the early years of Jim Crow the Nadir, the lowest point in African American history, the period also was the zenith of the black press, black business, black church organizations, and the black womens club movement as African Americans set about the work of race progress.

Still, the disadvantages of Jim Crow far outweighed the advantages, and beginning in the 1930s, African Americans took up a number of civil rights crusades. The NAACP, for example, began the battle against educational inequality, with the support of local branches. Local communities also engaged in dont-buy-where-you-cant-work campaigns, denying their dollars to businesses that did not employ black people. Veterans returned from a war against racism expecting to be accorded citizenship rights commensurate with their sacrifices. Turned back at the courthouses, they launched voting rights campaigns. By the 1940s, several events signaled that the demise of Jim Crow had begun. In Texas, the Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright, Election Judge, et al. 312 U. S. 649 (1944) ended the all-white primary, opening the southern electoral process to black voters. In 1948 President Harry Truman (19132003) signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Finally, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education sounded the end of constitutionally sanctioned Jim Crow in public schools, making way for African Americans to demand the integration of all public facilities and accommodations.

Just as Jim Crow was not a strictly definable historical period, the struggle against it was protracted. Using forms of direct action, nonviolent protests, and demonstrations, civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s were determined to break the back of Jim Crow, and they were successful, at least as far as the legal arena was concerned. Inasmuch as Jim Crow was a milieu that permeated culture and ideology historically, the struggle against American apartheid continues.

SEE ALSO Apartheid; Bamboozled; Black Face; Brown v. Board of Education, 1954; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Discrimination; Discrimination, Racial; Ku Klux Klan; Lynchings; Minstrelsy; Race Relations; Racism; Segregation; Separate-but-Equal; Stereotypes; Truman, Harry S.; Tulsa Riot; Voting Rights Act; White Supremacy; Whiteness; Wilmington Riot of 1898


Chafe, William H., Raymond Gavins, Robert Korstad, et al. 2001. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South. New York: New Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. 2nd ed. Chicago: A. C. McClurg.

Gilmore, Glenda. 1996. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 18961920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Klarman, Michael J. 2004. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Litwack, Leon. 1998. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Knopf.

Williamson, Joel. 1984. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Woodward, C. Vann. [1955] 2002. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leslie Brown

Jim Crow

views updated Jun 08 2018


The white minstrel show performer Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice popularized the term "Jim Crow" in the 1830s. The term originated from a song and dance that he had seen an elderly slave perform, which ended with the lyrics "Wheel about an' turn about an' do jes so, / An' eb'ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow." The popularity of minstrel shows based on racist African American stereotypes transformed "Jim Crow" into a familiar word in the nation's vocabulary. Jim Crow, or racial segregation, began in northern states, where slavery was abolished in 1830, and later moved south. While northern blacks held obvious advantages over southern slaves, northerners systematically segregated free blacks and denied them the rights of citizenship, and western states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Oregon either restricted or banned blacks from entering their borders. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835), responded to this racial bias, commenting that "the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists" (p. 414). Still, by 1890 the term had become synonymous with the South's systematic segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans; by 1910 every former Confederate state had codified into law and state constitutions provisions that controlled blacks and supported white supremacy. Other measures to control blacks across the nation included acts of terror such as lynching and ritualized mob violence. Until the civil rights movement dismantled Jim Crow, its legal and social barriers hindered blacks' ability to participate fully in society.


While Reconstruction refers to the political process of readmitting southern states to the Union after the Civil War, it also represents a period marked by the South's attempts to regain economic, political, and social power over emancipated slaves. Black Codes enacted in 1865 and 1866 laid the groundwork for Jim Crow laws that appeared in the 1890s. Like earlier slave codes, Black Codes were a series of statutes that restricted blacks' civil and political rights and included legal definitions of race, employment requirements and regulations, segregation of public facilities, and prohibitions against blacks' assembling or learning to read and write. Viewed as another effort to reintroduce slavery, Congress dismantled the codes to secure blacks the full rights of citizenship through the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and ratification of the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments, after which blacks voted, participated in the political process, bought land, sought employment, built their own schools, and used public facilities. Southern Democrats elected Rutherford B. Hayes as president in 1876 with his promise to end Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877, which cleared the way for a legally sanctioned Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws legalized segregation, and customary barriers separating the races became enforceable legal barriers.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court supported segregation. In 1883 it declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial discrimination by state governments, not private organizations or individuals, which led railroads, businesses, and schools to practice segregation. When blacks protested an 1890 Louisiana state law that required segregated railroad cars, the Supreme Court ruled, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional.

American literature reflected Americans' multifarious and changing attitudes toward Jim Crow. Writing during Reconstruction, Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris romanticized slavery. Their "plantation literature"—including In Ole Virginia (1887), Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), and Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892)—depicts the antebellum South as racially harmonious. In contrast, some African American writers challenged the nostalgic vision of antebellum life for slaves; consider, for example, Charles W. Chesnutt's Uncle Julius McAdoo in The Conjure Woman (1899) and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Aunt Chloe and Uncle Jacob in Sketches of Southern Life (1872).

In The Grandissimes (1880) and Madame Delphine (1881), George Washington Cable (1844–1925) critiqued race and class distinctions, but he would more openly advocate for blacks' full civil rights in The Silent South (1885) and The Negro Question (1890). Although the South legalized segregation, the North continued to perpetuate "de facto segregation," which Frederick Douglass challenged by advocating for political action in his "The Color Line" (1881) and "Address to the Louisville Convention" (1883) as well as by entering whites-only establishments. To survive in a racially charged climate, blacks learned how to adapt and cope through artful deception. In Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), Paul Laurence Dunbar's (1872–1906) poem "We Wear the Mask" reveals the dual nature of black life. This poem attacks the need for blacks to wear a veil when in the presence of whites and anticipates W. E. B. Du Bois's (1868–1963) exploration of "double consciousness" in The Souls of Black Folk (1903): "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (p. 45). Du Bois urged blacks to step from behind the veil. Dunbar's poem also elicits another reading. The mask as symbol provides a measure of subversive power because it can hide emotion. Dunbar validates the African American experience and the indignities suffered under white supremacy. The poem also highlights the importance of not sharing the agony with those who inflicted pain.

At the turn of the century, violent confrontation was one of the consequences of Jim Crow. Thomas Dixon's The Clansmen (1905) became the basis for D. W. Griffith's movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), which exacerbated racial tensions and led to race riots. Chesnutt based his novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) on the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, depicting problems afflicting the New South. Race riots also occurred in northern states. The fall and summer of 1919 became known as "Red Summer," following the death of hundreds of blacks in race riots all across the United States. Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die" (1919) urged black men to fight back and pursue their honor and dignity. Pauline Hopkins's novel Winona (1902), set in Kansas, affirmed organized violence against racist oppression. Seemingly rejecting Booker T. Washington's doctrine of self-help, moral virtue, industrial education, and social segregation as a means to race progress, Winona calls for public protests against the escalating mob violence endorsed by Jim Crow culture.

The founder and head of Tuskegee Institute, Washington (1856–1915) offered a less-confrontational solution to racial violence; he advised blacks to accept segregation and stop demanding equal rights. He also advocated a vocational rather than a college education as a way for blacks to build skills that could lead to their eventual economic prosperity. His "Atlanta Compromise" speech (1895) and autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), explained his educational and political philosophies of accommodation and appeasement, which won him southern white support. A Harvard-educated historian and sociologist, Du Bois vehemently opposed Washington's tactics. In The Souls of Black Folk, he openly criticized Washington for asking blacks to surrender their rights and human dignity. Unlike Washington, Du Bois advocated higher education as a way to create a "talented tenth," a group of black leaders who could lead resistance efforts against Jim Crow.

Literature also explored Jim Crow's emphasis on color. In Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" (1893), Désirée Aubigny's husband questions her ancestry when their newborn's physical features are clearly black. Similarly, in Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), Mark Twain explored the color line that Jim Crow established when he created a story of mixed identities instigated when a slave woman exchanged her light-skinned child with her master's. The increase in education and employment opportunities among blacks led to the rise of a middle class. In certain instances, skin color played a role within black communities as this largely "mulatto elite" sought to maintain the privileged status that many had acquired during slavery. A number of mulattoes adopted the prejudices Jim Crow created by segregating themselves in communities where skin color became the key to access. In "The Wife of His Youth" (1899), Charles Chesnutt sensitively portrayed the moral dilemmas in communities such as the New Orleans or Nashville Blue Vein Societies that restricted admittance to those who were light enough to see the veins in their wrists. Many light-skinned blacks escaped Jim Crow's violence and degradation by concealing their identities and passing as white. James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) illustrates how Jim Crow forced many to agonize over choosing one identity over another.


In addition to the eradication of civil and political rights, Jim Crow also prevented blacks from bettering themselves economically. Most were forced into low-paying jobs for whites as farmhands or domestics. Jim Crow laws even insisted that blacks be employed, or they would be jailed for vagrancy. Employment laws supported sharecropping and the convict lease system, both of which resembled slavery. Former plantation owners had land but little money to pay workers for continued crop cultivation (usually cotton). In exchange for land and a portion of the crops, landowners contracted with blacks for their labor. Local stores extended them credit throughout the year to purchase seeds, food, and equipment, but high interest rates meant that blacks fell further into debt, even forcing their children to continue sharecropping. Like lynching, sharecropping became a familiar literary theme. Sharecropping also informed the lyrics of blues songs like "Cotton Field Blues" and "Boll Weevel Blues."

Many southern blacks responded to inequality, vigilante violence, and sharecropping by fleeing the South. Between 1880 and 1890 thousands made new homes in Kansas and Oklahoma. Later, in what became called the "Great Migration," hundreds of thousands moved to New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other industrial urban areas to take advantage of employment opportunities created by World War I. This large influx of blacks to New York City contributed to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, a movement that refers to the blossoming of African American literature and art. Harlem Renaissance writers celebrated African American culture.

Also blossoming was a motion picture industry with black entrepreneurs such as Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951). Inspired by Booker T. Washington's call for blacks and whites to get along with each other and Horace Greeley, who encouraged everyone to move west, Micheaux purchased land in South Dakota in 1905. His homesteading experience became the basis for his first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), which he later rewrote into The Homesteader (1917) and made into his first film. The Homesteader demonstrated Micheaux's understanding of segregation and desire to unite white and black communities.

Like Micheaux, many blacks discovered that their social and economic conditions in the North had remained unchanged. Restricted to menial jobs, poor housing and education, and unfamiliar with city life, blacks founded institutions to promote racial uplift and to fight Jim Crow. Two organizations formed during this time are still in existence. They include the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes, which eventually become the National Urban League (1910), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909 by Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and others. The NAACP's numerous legal battles set a series of precedents that courts would use to strike down Jim Crow. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court ruled "separate but equal" in education was unconstitutional. This helped spark the civil rights movement, and with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1966, Jim Crow was effectively dismantled.

See alsoBlacks; Civil Rights; Lynching; Race Novels; Racial Uplift; Reconstruction; The Souls of Black Folk; Up from Slavery


Primary Works

Cable, George Washington. The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life. 1880. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Cable, George Washington. Madame Delphine. 1881. New York: Firebird, 2001.

Cable, George Washington. The Negro Question: A Selection of Writings on Civil Rights in the South. 1890. Edited by Arlin Turner. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.

Cable, George Washington. The Silent South. 1885. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1969.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Chesnutt, Charles W. Stories, Novels, Essays. New York: Library of America, 2002.

Chopin, Kate. "The Father of Désirée's Baby." Vogue, 14 January 1893.

Chopin, Kate. Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories. Edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. New York: Library of America, 2002.

Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. 1905. Ridgewood, N.J.: Gregg, 1967.

Douglass, Frederick. "Address to the Louisville Convention." 1883. In Frederick Douglas: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

Douglass, Frederick. "The Color Line." 1881. In Frederick Douglas: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Edited by David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Edited by Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Sketches of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Ferguson Brothers, 1891. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu.

Harris, Joel Chandler. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Edited by Richard Chase. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Hopkins, Pauline. The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Johnson, James Weldon. Writings: James Weldon Johnson. New York: Library of America, 2004.

McKay, Claude. Complete Poems: Claude McKay. Edited by William J. Maxwell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Micheaux, Oscar. The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. 1913. New York: Washington Square Press, 2003.

Page, Thomas Nelson. In Ole Virginia; or, Marse Chan and Other Stories. 1887. Nashville, Tenn.: J. S. Sanders, 1991.

Twain, Mark. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. 1894. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing, 1900. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Twa2Pud.html.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835. New York: Bantam Classics, 2000.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. 1901. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/WasSlav.html.

Secondary Works

Dailey, Jane, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds. Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1869–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Kaplan, Amy. "Nation, Region, and Empire." In Columbia History of the American Novel, edited by Emory Elliott, pp. 240–266. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Packard, Jerrold M. American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin's, 2002.

Wilson, Kirt H. The Reconstruction Desegregation Debate: The Politics of Equality and the Rhetoric of Place, 1870–1875. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002.

Wormser, Richard. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin's, 2003.

Elizabeth Archuleta

Jim Crow

views updated May 23 2018

Jim Crow

As a way of portraying African Americans, Jim Crow first appeared in the context of minstrelsy in the early nineteenth century. Thomas "Daddy" Rice, a white minstrel, popularized the term. Using burnt cork to blacken his face, attired in the ill-fitting, tattered garments of a beggar, and grinning broadly, Rice imitated the dancing, singing, and demeanor generally ascribed to Negro character. Calling it "Jump Jim Crow," he based the number on a routine he had seen performed in 1828 by an elderly and crippled Louisville stableman belonging to a Mr. Crow. "Weel about, and turn about / And do jis so; / Eb'ry time I weel about, / I jump Jim Crow." The public responded with enthusiasm to Rice's caricature of black life. By the 1830s minstrelsy had become one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment, Jim Crow had entered the American vocabulary, and many whites, north and south, came away from minstrel shows with their distorted images of black life, character, and aspirations reinforced.

Less clear is how a dance created by a black stableman and imitated by a white man for the amusement of white audiences would become synonymous with a system designed by whites to segregate the races. The term Jim Crow as applied to separate accommodations for whites and blacks appears to have had its origins not in the South but in Massachusetts before the Civil War. Abolitionist newspapers employed the term in the 1840s to describe separate railroad cars for blacks and whites. Throughout the North, blacks, though legally free, found themselves largely the objects of scorn, ridicule, and discrimination. Most northern whites shared with southern whites the conviction that blacks, as an inferior race, were incapable of assimilation as equals into American society. Racial integrity demanded that blacks, regardless of class, be segregated in public transportationthat they be excluded from the regular cabins and dining rooms on steamboats, compelled to ride on the outside of stagecoaches, and forced to travel in special Jim Crow coaches on the railroads. Only in preCivil War New England did blacks manage to integrate transportation facilities, but only after prolonged agitation during which blacks and white abolitionists deliberately violated Jim Crow rules and often had to be dragged from the trains.

Before the Civil War, enslavement determined the status of most black men and women in the South, and there was little need for legal segregation. Several Radical Republican state governments outlawed segregation in their new constitutions during Reconstruction but did not try to force integration on unwilling whites. Custom, habit, and etiquette defined the social relations between the races and enforced separation. The determination of blacks to improve their position revolved largely around efforts to secure accommodations that equaled those provided to whites.

But in the 1890s, even as segregation became less rigid and pervasive in the North, the term Jim Crow took on additional force and meaning in the South. It came to represent an expanded apparatus of segregation sanctioned by law. Economic and social changes had multiplied the places and situations in which blacks and whites might come into contact, and whites had become alarmed over a new generation of blacks undisciplined by slavery, unschooled in racial etiquette, less fearful of whites, and more inclined to assert their rights as citizens.

Jim Crow, then, came to the South in an expanded and more rigid form in the 1890s and the early twentieth century in response to white perceptions of a new generation of blacks and to growing doubts that this generation could be trusted to stay in its place without legal force. Some whites, caught up in the age of Progressive reform, preferred to view legal segregation as reform rather than repression, as a way to resolve racial tensions and maintain the peace. For most whites, however, it was nothing less than racial self-preservation, deeply rooted in the white psyche. "If anything would make me kill my children," a white woman told a northern visitor, "it would be the possibility that niggers might sometime eat at the same table and associate with them as equals. That's the way we feel about it, and you might as well root up that big tree in front of the house and stand it the other way up and expect it to grow as to think we can feel any different" (Johnson, 1904, p. 352).

Between 1890 and 1915 the racial creed of the white South manifested itself in the systematic disfranchisement of black men, in rigid patterns of racial segregation, in unprecedented racial violence and brutality, and in the dissemination of racial caricatures that reinforced and comforted whites in their racial beliefs and practices. The white South moved to segregate the races by law in practically every conceivable situation in which they might come into social contact. The signs white only and colored would henceforth punctuate the southern scenery: from public transportation to public parks and cemeteries; from the workplace to hospitals, asylums, orphanages, and prisons; from the entrances and exits at theaters, movie houses, and boardinghouses to toilets and water fountains. Oftentimes, Jim Crow demanded exclusion rather than separation, as with municipal libraries and many sports and recreational facilities. Jim Crow legislation tended to be thorough, far-reaching, even imaginative: from separate public school textbooks for black and white children to

Jim Crow Bibles for black witnesses in court, from separate telephone booths to Jim Crow elevators. New Orleans adopted an ordinance segregating black and white prostitutes.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the U.S. Supreme Court employed the "separate-but-equal" principle to affirm the constitutionality of Jim Crow, confirming what most black southerners already knew from personal experiencethat the quality of their life and freedom depended on the whims and will of a majority of whites in their locality or state. The court decision, along with the elaborate structure of Jim Crow, remained in force for more than half a century. In the 1950s and 1960s a new climate of political necessity and a new generation of black Americans helped to restructure race relations. With an emboldened and enlarged civil rights movement in the vanguard, the federal government and the courts struck down the legal barriers of racial segregation and ended Jim Crow. But a far more intractable and elusive kind of racism, reflected in dreary economic statistics and a pervasive poverty, lay beyond the reach of the law and the growing civil rights movement.

See also Abolition; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Plessy v. Ferguson


Cell, John W. The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South America and the American South. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Johnson, Clifton. Highways and Byways of the South. New York: Macmillan, 1904.

McMillan, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Patler, Nicholas. Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration: Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2004.

Rabinowitz, Howard. Race Relations in the Urban South, 18651890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Woodward, C. Vann. "The Strange Career of a Historical Controversy." In American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

leon f. litwack (1996)
Updated bibliography

Jim Crow Laws

views updated May 23 2018


In 1877, as the postCivil War (18611865) era of Reconstruction drew to a close, the former Confederate states of the South were freed from the control of the occupation army of federal troops and carpetbaggers. They began to assert segregationist policies on the exslaves who had experienced only a fleeting taste of freedom. Although defeated, the white people of the former Confederacy considered African Americans inferior. Although the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution had supposedly freed African-Americans from slavery and declared them citizens with enforceable rights, the concerted resistance of the old white South undid the few gains that Reconstruction policies had achieved.

In 1875 the U.S. Congress passed a Civil Rights Act guaranteeing African Americans access to public facilities. It was obvious, however, that even at the federal level the political commitment to equality was weakening, as the language to maintain integrated school systems was stripped from the bill before its passage. Still, when some minor efforts were made to enforce the already weakened law, Southern state legislatures reacted by erecting a legal system to separate the races in every aspect of daily life. The result was a web of public policies and practices through which a racial caste system emerged in the South. Under these new laws, which were called "Jim Crow laws" after the ubiquitous shuffling minstrel character of the same name, "persons of color" were relegated to second-class status and denied access to the public education and transportation institutions.

The emergence of a caste system in the South gained momentum from two Supreme Court decisions. In the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, the Court struck down the 1875 act as exceeding Congress' powers under Reconstruction. Then in 1896 the Court ruled racial segregation was legally acceptable. The 1896 ruling came from a Louisiana case, Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1890 the state of Louisiana passed a law requiring "colored" and white persons be provided "separate but equal" railroad passenger car accommodations. In 1892 Homer Plessy, a person of acknowledged one-eighth African American descent, refused to leave the "white" car on the East Louisiana Railroad. He was arrested. The case eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the state law was a reasonable exercise of state police powers to promote the public good. The Court went further and held that separate facilities did not have to be identical. It turned out that the "separate but equal" doctrine was merely self-serving rhetoric. For the next six decades the reality was most often "separate and unequal" treatment. Because the races could not encounter one another on the grounds of a presumption of equality, the ideology of white supremacy was able to perpetuated itself from generation to generation. African Americans had to live with inferior facilities, access, and services.

As inequality became institutionalized, the Jim Crow laws required the separation of races in every facet of life including transportation, schools, lodging, public parks, theaters, hospitals, neighborhoods, cemeteries, and restaurants. Inter-racial marriages were prohibited. Business owners and public institutions were prohibited from allowing African American and white clientele to mingle. While the objective was to eliminate any contact between whites and persons of color as equals, the effect 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 acted laws to limit African American voting rights. With discriminatory voting requirements, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, African Americans (and many poor whites) were effectively barred from participation in the political arena.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), created in 1909, took the lead in combating Jim Crow laws. Successes in reversing Jim Crow laws were quite limited prior to World War II (19391945). Finally, the turning point came in 1954 when the Supreme Court struck down public school segregation in Brown v. Topeka 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. Support for Jim Crow laws waned as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the following years. Finally, 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. Though formally ended, 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."

Topic overview

In the 1890s, poll taxes and literacy tests succeeded in disenfranchising all but a handful of southern blacks. America had once again walked away from an opportunity to achieve justice. In place of slavery came "Jim Crow" laws that governed almost every aspect of life for Black Americans living below the Mason-Dixon line. The insidious Jim Crow caricature of the Negro became a powerful barrier to legal and social equality.

henry hampton and steve fayer, voices of freedom: an oral history of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, 1990

See also: Civil Rights Movement, Plessy v. Ferguson


Adelson, Bruce. Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor-League Baseball in the American South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Gilmore, Glenda E. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 18961920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Knopf, 1998.

McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Oshinsky, David M. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Schneider, Mark R. Boston Confronts Jim Crow, 1890 1920. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Jim Crow Laws

views updated Jun 08 2018


The Jim Crow Laws emerged in southern states after the u.s. civil war. First enacted in the 1880s by lawmakers who were bitter about their loss to the North and the end of slavery, the statutes separated the races in all walks of life. The resulting legislative barrier to equal rights created a system that favored whites and repressed blacks, an institutionalized form of inequality that grew in subsequent decades with help from the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the laws came under attack over the next half century, real progress against them did not begin until the Court began to dismantle segregation in the 1950s. The remnants of the Jim Crow system were finally abolished in the 1960s through the efforts of the civil rights movement.

The term "Jim Crow" laws evidently originated from a minstrel show character developed during the mid-nineteenth century. A number of groups of white entertainers applied black cork to their faces and imitated Negro dancing and singing routines. Such acts became popular in several northern cities. One of the performers reportedly sang a song with the lyrics, "Weel about and turn about and do jis so, Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow." The moniker Jim Crow later became synonymous with the segregation laws.

The origins of Jim Crow lie in the battered South of the mid-nineteenth century. The Civil War had ended, but its antagonisms had not; the war of values and political identity continued. Many whites refused to welcome blacks into civic life, believing them to be inferior and resenting northern demands in the era of Reconstruction, especially the requirement that southern states ratify the thirteenth amendment, which would abolish slavery. Southern states initially resisted by passing so-called black codes, which prohibited former slaves from carrying firearms or joining militias. More hostility followed when Congress enacted the civil rights act of 1875 (18 Stat. 335), which guaranteed blacks access to public facilities. As the federal government pressed the South to enfranchise blacks, a backlash developed in the form of state regulations that separated whites from blacks in public facilities.

In the late nineteenth century, southern states took comfort from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions. First, in 1883, the Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional, in the so-called civil rights cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835. It ruled that Congress had exceeded its powers under the Reconstruction amendments. This decision

encouraged southern states to extend Jim Crow restrictions, as in an 1890 Louisiana statute that required white and "colored" persons to be furnished "separate but equal" accommodations on railway passenger cars. In fact, that law came under attack in the Court's next significant decision, the 1896 case of plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256. In Plessy, the Court upheld the Louisiana law, ruling that establishing separate-but-equal public accommodations and facilities was a reasonable exercise of the police power of a state to promote the public good. Plessy kept the principle of separate but equal alive for the next 60 years.

By the start of world war i, every southern state had passed Jim Crow laws. Becoming entrenched over the next few decades, the laws permeated nearly every part of public life, including railroads, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, neighborhoods, and even cemeteries. Whites had their facilities; blacks had theirs. The white facilities were better built and equipped. In particular, white schools were almost uniformly better in every respect, from buildings to educational materials. States saw to it that their black citizens were essentially powerless to overturn these laws, using poll taxes and literacy tests to deny them the right to vote. Jim Crow even extended to the federal government: Early in the twentieth century, discriminatory policies were rife throughout federal departments, and not until the korean war (1950–53) did the armed forces stop segregating personnel into black and white units.

Opposition to the policy of Jim Crow came chiefly from African Americans. Early leadership was provided by the Afro-American National League in the 1890s and, after the turn of the century, the influential author and activist w. e. b. du bois. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), established in 1909, became the most powerful force for the repeal of Jim Crow laws during the next half century. The NAACP fought numerous battles in two important arenas: the court of public opinion and the courts of law.

At first, legal progress came slowly. In a series of decisions in the 1940s, the U.S. Supreme Court began to dismantle individual Jim Crow laws and practices. The Court ruled that political parties could not exclude voters from primary elections on the basis of race (Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 987 [1944]). It ruled that black passengers on interstate buses need not follow the segregation laws of the states through which those buses passed (Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373, 66 S. Ct. 1050, 90 L. Ed. 1317 [1946]). It also held that the judiciary could no longer enforce private agreements—called restrictive covenants—that excluded ownership or occupancy of property based on race (Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 [1948]).

By 1950, legal changes were coming in droves. The Court decided in favor of black student Herman Marion Sweatt concerning his appeal for entrance to the University of Texas Law School. In Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 70 S. Ct. 848, 94 L. Ed. 1114 (1950), the Court ruled that the educational opportunities offered to white and black law students by the state of Texas were not substantially equal, and that the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment required that Sweatt be admitted to classes with white students at the University of Texas law school. Four years later came the Court's most significant decision affecting Jim Crow: brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). Overturning the precedent that had existed since Plessy in 1896, the Court in Brown decreed unconstitutional the policy of separate-but-equal educational facilities for blacks and whites.

Brown marked a turning point in the battle against the institution of segregation that Jim Crow laws had created. It was not the death knell, however. Much remained to be done, not only to topple legal restrictions but also to remove the barriers of prejudice and violence that stood in the way of full integration. The final blows were administered by the civil rights movement, whose boycotts, sit-ins, and lawsuits continued over the next two decades. By the mid-1960s, the last vestiges of legal segregation were ended by a series of federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.), the voting rights act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1971 et seq.), and the fair housing act of 1968 (42 U.S.C.A. § 3601 et seq.).

further readings

Chafe, William H., et al, eds. 2001. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. New York: New Press.

"The Origin of 'Jim Crow'." 1996. AFRO-American Almanac. Available online at <www.toptags.com/aama/docs/jcrow.htm> (accessed May 25, 2003).

Quarles, Benjamin. 1987. The Negro in the Making of America. New York: Collier Books.


Civil Rights; Equal Protection; Ku Klux Klan; Ku Klux Klan Act; School Desegregation.

Jim Crow Laws

views updated Jun 27 2018

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 (“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.”

Jim Crow Laws

views updated Jun 08 2018


JIM CROW LAWS, which regulated social, economic, and political relationships between whites and African Americans, were passed principally to subordinate blacks as a group to whites and to enforce rules favored by dominant whites on nonconformists of both races. The name "Jim Crow" came from a character in an early nineteenth-century minstrel show song.

Beginning with a ban on interracial marriages in Maryland in 1664, the laws spread north as well as south, but they were neither uniform nor invariably enforced. The campaign against them, initiated in the 1840s by both black and white Massachusetts antislavery activists, reached a symbolic end in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, that finally ruled anti-intermarriage laws unconstitutional.

The most widespread laws mandated racial segregation in schools and public places such as railroads, restaurants, and streetcars. Since segregation laws often replaced customary or legal exclusion of African Americans from any services at all, they were initially, in a sense, progressive reforms. They tended to be adopted earliest and were more strictly enforced in cities where diverse crowds intermingled, than in the countryside where other means of racial subordination were readily available.

During Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s, seven southern states passed laws requiring equal access to places open to the public; Louisiana and South Carolina, as well as seven northern states, promised integrated schools. After a long struggle over whether to include a school integration provision, Congress in 1875 passed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. But in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in The Civil Rights Cases that Congress had no power under the Fourteenth Amendment to regulate an individual's discriminatory behavior.

While virtually all northern states that had not already banned Jim Crow practices rushed to enact state versions of the invalidated national Civil Rights Act, most southern states during the 1880s and 1890s passed laws requiring segregation. The Supreme Court held up the southern laws in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), accepting assurances that separate accommodations would be equal. Freed of legal restraints, some southern cities and states went on to prescribe separate drinking fountains, restrooms, entrances to public buildings, and even Bibles for use in court. More significantly, they disfranchised the vast majority of African Americans through literacy and property tests and discrimination against blacks who could pass such tests.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led the long effort to overturn Jim Crow through lawsuits such as those that led to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), as well as by lobbying for new state and federal laws. Beginning in the 1890s and greatly intensifying in the 1950s, African Americans boycotted segregated transit, held sit-ins at segregated restaurants, picketed discriminatory businesses, registered black voters, and braved frequent violence in an ultimately successful effort to force Americans to abolish the most blatant legal inequities. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and a host of state and federal court decisions institutionalized the crusaders' victories. The demise of explicitly discriminatory laws, however, was only one giant step on the unfinished journey toward racial equality.


Kousser, J. Morgan. Dead End: The Development of Nineteenth-Century Litigation on Racial Discrimination in Schools. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865–1890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

J. MorganKousser

See alsoBlack Codes ; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ; Civil Rights Movement ; Literacy Test ; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ; Poll Tax ; Segregation .

Jim Crow

views updated May 21 2018

Jim Crow / ˈjim ˈkrō/ • n. 1. the former practice of segregating black people in the US: [as adj.] Jim Crow laws. ∎ offens. a black person. 2. an implement for straightening steel bars or bending rails by screw pressure.DERIVATIVES: Jim Crow·ism / ˈkrōˌizəm/ n.

Jim Crow

views updated May 21 2018

Jim Crow the name of a black character in a 19th-century plantation song, with the refrain ‘Wheel about and turn about and jump Jim Crow’; the name was also used in the stage presentation of a song and dance act first performed by Thomas D. Rice (1808–60). From the mid 20th century, Jim Crow was also used to denote racial discrimination, especially through segregation of black people in the US.
Jim Crow laws laws which formerly ensured the segregation of black people in the US.

Jim Crow Laws

views updated May 14 2018

Jim Crow Laws Laws enacted in southern US states after Reconstruction, enforcing racial segregation in public places and on public transport. They were progressively overturned by the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s.

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