Racial Segregation in the American South: Jim Crow Laws

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Racial Segregation in the American South: Jim Crow Laws

Racism is the belief that the physical characteristics of a person or group determines their capabilities and that one group is naturally superior to other groups. Racism has been a major factor of society in the United States throughout its history. Racial prejudice has even been central to the development of American laws, basically legalizing white dominance over others.

The historical plight of black Americans presents a classic example of what happens when a group becomes defined as weaker and less intelligent and overall, less valued. As time passes, those prejudices become long-lasting behavior patterns carrying over from one generation to the next. They became highly resistant to challenge by social movements and even new laws banning discrimination (treating some differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) against the minority. Discrimination means one group enjoys an undeserved advantage over another group with the same capabilities. For example, some groups may freely attend certain prestigious schools or obtain better paying jobs while others are not. In the twenty-first century, blacks are still recovering from centuries of prejudice against them. Injustices in the present have strong roots in the past.

A long history of racism

Racism was prominent during the colonial period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the North American colonies were a part of the worldwide British Empire. Britons had traditionally associated dark skin color with negative behavioral traits such as evil and filth. Colonists brought this prejudice with them to North America when they crossed the ocean to settle in the seventeenth century.

By the late seventeenth century, race became the basis of slavery (people being held captive and treated as property in order to perform free labor). Blacks did not come to the United States by choice but were brought to North America through an international slave trade. Forced into a life of slavery, they were captured by European slave traders and shipped to the New World in trade for sugar, rum, and various goods that were then shipped back to Europe. The colonists had severe labor shortages and an immediate and pressing need to clear the forests of the Eastern Seaboard from Georgia north through New England and plant crops. The Africans provided a large and free labor pool. They also provided a social group that to which the predominately white western European colonists could feel superior. Whites could gain social status by becoming planters and slave owners. The prejudice shaped colonial laws that banned intermarriage and considered slaves not as humans, but as property with no rights. Any child of mixed blood (one white parent, one black) was considered black and forced to live as a slave, among slaves with few exceptions.

Throughout the 1700s, Britons and their colonists were convinced that slavery was an essential element to national prosperity and world power. To justify slave trade, black Africans were dehumanized, often referred to as black cattle. The prejudiced attitudes held by the colonists focused on what they considered the uncivilized and un-Christian nature of the black Africans. They held a widespread belief reinforced by popular writings and religious sermons that Africans were naturally inferior to white Europeans.


A protest by not buying certain products or using certain services until demands are met.
freedom rider:
A civil rights activist who rides on interstate buses to test their compliance with court orders to end segregation on buses and bus facilities.
Using laws to separate whites and blacks.
When black activists walk into an establishment such as a restaurant for whites-only and refuse to leave until they are served or the business closes.
People being held captive and treated as property in order to perform free labor.

Only part-human

Through the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), Americans won their freedom from British rule and a new nation of the United States of America, as officially named in 1777, began taking shape. However, freedom was not extended to the black slaves. Even Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and included the famous phrase that "all men are created equal," came from a wealthy Virginia planter's family and was himself a slave owner. In fact, in the late twentieth century it was discovered that Jefferson probably had six children with a slave woman, Sally Hemings. He freed all six of the children, but never Hemings herself. By the 1780s, slavery was being phased out of the Northern states. But Southern states stubbornly hung on to slavery as a cornerstone of its agricultural economy. The plantations relied heavily on the free labor and they could not economically survive without it. Slavery was such an emotional topic that it was not discussed during the Constitutional Convention held in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. There the nation's Founding Fathers shaped a new national government and system of justice. Many of them were slave owners who privately thought, or hoped, that slavery would just slowly fade away for the sake of the country.

When the topic of black slaves did enter into the discussion in the convention, it was related to how the national census (a regular count of people in a country) should be taken. A key question was whether blacks should be counted. The census was to be crucial for determining how many members of the U.S. House of Representatives could be sent from each state, therefore it would determine how much political influence each state would hold. If slaves were to be counted, then the Southern states would have greater political power in relation to the Northern states. If not counted, the Southern states would have less. The debate raged for days before convention participants reached a compromise. Black slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person. Blacks were still not full humans in the eyes of the law.

Southern delegates to the 1787 Convention also won a compromise that the new U.S. government could not abolish the importation of slaves for at least twenty years after adoption of the new Constitution. During the next two decades, public pressure continued to increase to prohibit slave trade on U.S. shores. As soon as it could do so, Congress responded, in 1808 with legislation banning U.S. participation in international slave trade.

Growth of slavery

The first census ever taken in the United States occurred in 1790. It showed that 757,000 blacks lived in the United States, of whom 700,000 were slaves. Over 22 percent of American families owned at least one slave. The hopes that slavery would fade out of American life were dashed only a few years later. In 1793, American inventor Eli Whitney (1765–1825) developed a much-improved cotton gin, a machine that separates cotton fibers from seed. The cotton gin made cotton a highly marketable crop in the South; its emergence meant that more slaves were needed to pick the crops because the work once done by hand was now done much faster by machine. New cotton fields spread across the Deep South and slavery boomed. Despite a ban on the importation of new African slaves, the black population in the United States grew to approximately 4.5 million by 1860. Some 90 percent of blacks in America were slaves. However the number of slave owning families had dropped to 10 percent. Large cotton plantations had overpowered smaller farms.

Prior to the American Civil War (1861–65), black slaves were at the bottom of a caste system (a very strict division of a society). At the top were rich plantation owners. In the middle were merchants, small farmers, and laborers. Slaves lived in housing provided by their owners. The owners also provided food and clothing. The quality of these basic necessities varied widely depending on the owner. The field laborer worked normally from sunrise to sunset. Ten or more slaves lived in a single room shack. The beds consisted of straw and old rags and the floors were dirt. Black families tried to maintain connections with one another, but that often became impossible as the slaves were sold like property on a regular basis. Slaves had no right to marry, vote, own firearms, own property, learn to read or write, possess books, testify in court against whites, or speak abusively toward whites.

The rise of Jim Crow

Slavery ended in 1865 with the South's defeat in the Civil War. However, the life of black Americans improved little. Three amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing rights to freed slaves. Slavery, though outlawed, was merely replaced with racial discrimination and injustice that was upheld legally by Black Codes (laws restricting rights of blacks). The Black Codes denied freed slaves the right to vote, to possess any form of weapon, and to leave a job and move elsewhere. They were considered servants now instead of slaves. Disobeying a Black Code could lead to imprisonment. Efforts by the federal government to rebuild the South's economy and society in the 1870s, called Reconstruction, abolished the Black Codes though open racial prejudice and discrimination persisted.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southerners began passing new laws enforcing racial segregation (separation of black people from whites) known as Jim Crow laws. It was the Jim Crow laws through which the beliefs about the inferior nature of blacks were perpetuated throughout much of the twentieth century. The term Jim Crow comes from a racist fictional character popular in America in the early 1800s. The character, played by a white person with blackened face, expressed racial prejudice against black Americans depicting an uneducated, poor rural black person.

Racial prejudices led to these discriminatory measures passed by state and local governments that sought to keep blacks at a lower social and economic position. Jim Crow laws strictly enforced public racial segregation in almost every aspect of Southern life. The segregation laws did not exist in the North, but racial discrimination by Northerners was widespread nonetheless. For example, blacks could not buy houses in the same neighborhoods as whites. Economic and educational opportunities for black Americans were greatly restricted.

Separate but equal

To contest the growing number of Jim Crow laws, a black shoemaker named Homer Plessy (1862–1925) boarded a train in New Orleans, Louisiana, and defiantly found a seat in a railroad car reserved for whites. Refusing to get off when commanded by the conductor, Plessy was arrested for violating segregationist laws. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his defense lawyer argued that the law violated the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted freedom to slaves, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which maintains that a state cannot deny privileges to people without applying fair lawful procedures known as due process of law.

The Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruled against Plessy and upheld laws enforcing segregation in railway car accommodations on the condition that the facilities were of equal quality. This decision became known as the "separate but equal" principle—the cornerstone of Jim Crow laws. However, the facilities were usually far from equal; those for blacks were always much inferior. For example, restrooms for blacks were filthy and often little more than outhouses. Also, black entrances to public facilities were usually, if not always, in the rear or the alley. With the introduction of motorized buses in the 1920s, seats for blacks were located in the hot and crowded back rows and the stink of exhaust fumes prevailed.

In reaction to Jim Crow laws, various scientists refuted the notion of inferiority of the black race, or even the very existence of true races. In futility, they claimed that genetics was too complex, that one group gradually blends into another with no sharp break. Their perspectives were generally ignored by the public and politicians and racial prejudice continued.

The inhumanity of Jim Crow

By 1915, all Southern states had some form of Jim Crow laws. Blacks could not eat in the same restaurants, drink out of the same water fountains, watch movies in the same theaters, play in the same parks, or go to the same schools as whites. Blacks had to sit in the back of buses and streetcars and give up their seats to whites when instructed to do so. Blacks could not nurse whites in hospitals. Signs reading "Colored Only" or "White Only" could be seen everywhere.

In addition to laws, there were certain unwritten social expectations. For example, a black man was not to shake hands with a white man and he could not make eye-contact with a white woman or else he would be accused of highly inappropriate sexual advances. When speaking, blacks were expected to address whites as "Mr.," "Sir," or "Ma'am."

Jim Crow laws also blocked most blacks from voting in public elections. Local authorities charged fees, called poll taxes which most blacks could not afford, and required blacks to pass literacy (reading and writing) tests not required of whites. Deprived of a formal education, most blacks could not read and write well and failed these tests. In addition to voting barriers in general elections, blacks were excluded from Southern politics in other ways. Southern states introduced the "white primary." The Democratic Party, the only real political party of power in the South, claimed their primaries to select candidates for various officers were private events. They banned participation by blacks. By 1910, this practice was used in every Southern state. As a result of voting restrictions and exclusion from primaries, blacks had little political influence in the South.

In addition to legal and social restrictions, terrorism by white supremacists was also used to discourage blacks from voting. These combined measures were very effective. In Louisiana, more than 130,000 blacks were registered to vote in 1896. By 1905, that number dropped to just over 1,300. If blacks violated Jim Crow rules, they could expect swift and perhaps brutal punishment, such as whippings or even death.

According to a report published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1919 titled Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889–1918, 2,522 black Americans were lynched—hanged, burned alive, or hacked to death—between 1889 and 1918. Lynching was the most violent form of discrimination. Offenses the victims were accused of were usually minor, such as stealing a cow, attempting to register to vote, or speaking out for equality. Often there were allegations of sexually assaulting a white woman or talking back to a white person. Rather than receiving a fair trial, blacks were lynched by white mobs. Of course, many victims were innocent. Lynching was a major means used during this period to control blacks. However, blacks were not the only victims of lynching; whites sympathetic to blacks were as well. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1932) became a leading African American advocate to outlaw lynching. Though she traveled the world speaking out against it, lynching would continue into the 1960s.

As prejudice, discrimination, and violence against blacks increased, a call to action by black leaders spread. An outspoken critic of the segregationist policies and racial prejudice was sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) at Atlanta University. In 1905, Du Bois and other black leaders met in Niagara Falls, Canada, to map out a strategy to fight prejudice in America. It became known as the Niagara Movement. Their focus was broad including voting rights for blacks, right to good education, better job opportunities, equal treatment as whites before the law in courts, and an end to Jim Crow laws. They had limited effectiveness due to lack of funds, but did establish a foundation for other groups to come along.

Meanwhile, Southern hostility toward blacks boiled over on several occasions. Major race riots broke out in 1906 in Brownsville, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia, and in 1908 in Springfield, Illinois. Alarmed, black leaders gathered again and in 1909 established the NAACP to fight lynching and other racist activities. The organization would be highly influential throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. The primary focus of the NAACP was legal action against racism, educational programs for black adults and children, and encouraging voter participation.

World War I (1914–18) created new jobs in various war industries, such as shipbuilding, and other factories in the North. Hundreds of thousands of blacks left the rural South in what became known to as the Great Migration. Black Americans arrived in the industrial North looking for good-paying war industry jobs. The Great Migration would last into the second half of the twentieth century.

The National Urban League, founded in 1910 by George E. Haynes (1875–1960), the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Columbia University, social activist Frances Kellor (1873–1952), and others, helped blacks adjust to city life. However, many never found the economic betterment they were seeking. They were unskilled and uneducated and relegated to jobs as laborers and servants, much as they had been in the South. The growing numbers of poor blacks crowded into cheap, deteriorating housing areas in the inner cities of the North called ghettos. These communities became known for their poverty and high crime rates.

The growing black population in the North also led to conflicts with whites that included rioting in several cities between 1917 and 1919. In the summer of 1918, racial conflicts in Chester and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, led to ten deaths and sixty injured. That was only a prelude to 1919, when twenty-five race riots erupted across the United States, leaving about one hundred people dead. During these years, membership in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist hate group, also grew rapidly and continued following the war. The KKK was founded only a few years earlier in 1915 in the Southern state of Georgia. It continued to grow in the 1920s to a membership of four million. Klansmen dressed in white robes for secrecy and to create fear. A burning cross was its symbol of terror. In the 1930s the KKK greatly declined in popularity only to come back in the 1960s in some Southern states in reaction to the fight for civil rights protections for blacks.

Last hired and first fired

Difficult conditions for blacks in America would only get tougher in the 1930s. When the value of stocks (partial ownership in a company) dropped sharply in October 1929, the United States—and later much of the world—entered a severe economic crisis known as the Great Depression (1929–41). Many people lost their jobs as production plummeted. Times became tougher yet for American blacks and prejudice increased dramatically through the 1930s. As related by authors Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis in the 2000 book To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, the saying "Last Hired and First Fired" applied to black Americans, who were the first to be let go at factories and other businesses. Racial discrimination increased even more during tough times.

Black Americans began to see some hope in the New Deal programs of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). The New Deal was a set of federal programs established in the 1930s to bring economic relief to those most affected by the Depression. Though not specially designed for blacks, this population benefited from the programs, though in the Jim Crow South discrimination affected the distribution of benefits.

Roosevelt organized a group of black advisors that became known as the Black Cabinet. Among them was William H. Hastie (1904–1976), who would become the first black federal court judge. However, many blacks were frustrated that the president was not more dedicated toward ending Jim Crow policies. The president did not want to loose political support of Southern politicians for his economic programs. The person in the White House most admired by blacks was President Roosevelt's wife, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Eleanor was outspoken about the underprivileged, particularly the conditions in the American South. Being less politically restricted than her husband, she publicly favored dismantling Jim Crow laws.

As jobs became available with the arrival of World War II (1939–45), more than two million blacks moved from the rural South to the North, again to find jobs in war industries to leave behind Jim Crow. Much to their dismay, they still faced pronounced prejudice and discrimination because many Northerners shared Southerners' attitudes about the abilities of blacks. Blacks were usually hired for jobs such as janitors at factories rather than on the actual assembly lines where war materials were made. Black leaders called for a march on Washington in 1942. Desperately not wanting to see a controversial political protest in Washington while trying to keep a unified war effort underway, Roosevelt issued an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in government agencies and the war industries. Still, more than a million blacks serving in the U.S. military served in largely segregated units. Segregation in the military would not end until 1948 when U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–1953) signed another executive order requiring equal treatment for all races.

Black Contributions During Jim Crow

Despite the oppressive laws and policies of the Jim Crow era, during the 1920s an exceptionally gifted group of black authors produced literature that all Americans could appreciate. They wrote of their experiences in the rural South as well as Northern cities. Most of the authors were located in Harlem; therefore, the period from 1919 to the mid-1930s became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The group included Langston Hughes (1902–1967) and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938). Black musicians also gained considerable fame. In 1914, bandleader W. C. Handy (1873–1958) composed the "St. Louis Blues," one of the first Blues songs to become a popular hit. The Blues was a form of music first made popular by black American musicians in the early 1910s. The music derived from spiritual songs and often portrayed a depressed outlook. Handy became known as the father of Blues. Jazz was also born during this period from black folk ballads. Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) and Duke Ellington (1899–1974) became the nation's leading jazz musicians. Other noted black leaders of the time included labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), who founded the first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Also capturing the headlines were such black athletes as track runner Jesse Owens (1913–1980) and heavyweight boxers Jack Johnson (1878–1946) and Joe Louis (1914–1981). The Harlem Renaissance helped build a foundation for the later civil rights movement by demonstrating the cultural contributions that black Americans were capable of making. It also provided inspiration for future black artists in America.

Later in the Jim Crow era, other firsts came for black Americans. Blacks became accepted in sports after Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) shattered the color barrier when he joined and starred with the Brooklyn Dodgers major league baseball team in 1947. Robinson became a larger than life hero and a symbol for blacks throughout America into the twenty-first century. U.S. diplomat Ralph J. Bunche (1904–1971) became the first black to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. The Nobel Peace Prize is a prestigious annual award given in Oslo, Norway, to a person who has made notable achievements in promoting peace and goodwill in the world. Gwendolyn Brooks (1912–2000) was the first black to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for a collection of poems published in the 1949 book Annie Allen. In 1955, Marian Anderson (1897–1993) became the first black singer to play a leading role in New York City's Metropolitan Opera. In 1963, actor Sidney Poitier (1927–) became the first black to win an Academy Award as best actor for his role in the film adaptation of Lilies of the Field.

Legal victories

During the war years, the NAACP increased its legal efforts in the fight against Jim Crow racial discrimination. It won several Supreme Court rulings, including a 1944 ruling in Smith vs. Allwright that the Southern white primary was illegal. Other anti-discrimination activities also took place during the war. In 1943 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded the previous year in Chicago to combat racial segregation through non-violent means, supported a sit-in (the act of entering an establishment such as a restaurant and peacefully refusing to leave in protest of their prejudicial policies) in a racially segregated Chicago restaurant.

Following the war, the NAACP gained new members as black servicemen returning home were again shocked by the blatant cruelty of the Jim Crow prejudice and discrimination that was still going on in the United States. A new group of young lawyers saw more legal successes between 1948 and 1951, including decisions against discrimination in higher educational institutions and in housing. In 1948 the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that restrictions could not be placed on real estate to forbid its sale to people on account of race. In Sweatt v. Painter the Court ruled that blacks could not be denied entrance to a state university law school on account of race.

The biggest legal victory for the NAACP against Jim Crow laws came in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. A lawsuit challenged a local school board decision in Topeka, Kansas that denied black student Linda Brown, a third-grader, from attending the all-white public school, which was the school nearest her home. Several other similar instances had occurred in other states, and they were all combined into a single Supreme Court case. The resulting Court decision overturned the 1896 Plessy decision. The "separate but equal" principle was no longer valid. The Brown decision stated that racially segregated public schools were illegal. The ruling did not provide a specific time by which schools had to desegregate, a fact that kept some schools segregated for another decade. Much to the frustration of black Americans, the ruling only applied to schools and not other public places such as theaters, restaurants, and places of employment.

The Brown decision posed dramatic implications. Black Americans were inspired to seek an end to other Jim Crow segregationist laws and to end all discriminatory practices as soon as possible. However, in the Jim Crow South, whites resisted the Court ruling. School employees who helped black children enroll at white schools were fired. A Virginia school system closed all of its public schools to avoid integration and sent their white children to private schools.

Growth of the Civil Rights Movement

Blacks, frustrated by the slow pace of change following the Brown decision, decided they had to fight for their rights. Protests against Jim Crow laws became widespread and used strategies such as sit-ins. Protestors would walk into hotels, restaurants, and libraries where blacks were not allowed and sit down, quietly refusing to leave when asked. In one famous incident, four black college students sat at a Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter. Refused service, they sat there for hours until the restaurant closed. Sit-ins spread across the South. As businesses increasingly feared losing income, "White Only" signs began coming down.

Protests spread to other areas of discrimination in the South. In August 1955, Rosa Parks (1913–2005), a seamstress and secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus. Local Jim Crow laws and traditions required blacks to sit toward the back of buses and give up their seats if the white section was full and whites wanted seats further back. Parks, with her bag of groceries, was tired of giving in. Her arrest triggered a boycott (to stop buying a certain product until demands are met) of the Montgomery buses by blacks, who comprised almost 70 percent of the bus riders. For 382 days, the boycott persisted, significantly reducing the revenue of the city bus department. Blacks rode in carpools, took taxis, or walked. In some instances, police arrested carpool drivers and charged them with picking up hitchhikers, which was illegal in Alabama. Bombs were thrown at the homes of black leaders. The boycott ended when the city bus department changed its policy shortly after Parks, defended by NAACP lawyers, won a Supreme Court decision that ruled bus segregation was illegal. It was another major victory against Jim Crow laws segregating public transportation. The boycott was the first organized mass protest by blacks and catapulted their leader, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), a young Montgomery Baptist minister, into the national spotlight.

Protests against Jim Crow laws paved the way for a broad social movement known as the Civil Rights Movement. Activists included whites as well as blacks, and all sought equal rights for black Americans. It was also known as the Black Freedom Movement. Following the Montgomery boycott, King and other leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to coordinate work of the various civil rights groups around the South. Preaching nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow laws and other discriminatory policies, King pressed forward, challenging long held segregationist traditions.

Resistance to school desegregation in the Jim Crow South continued. Three years after the Brown decision, there were still no blacks attending schools with whites anywhere in the South. In 1960, when a six-year-old girl enrolled in a white school in New Orleans, parents withdrew their white children in her class. She was the only child in her classroom for over a year. In defiance of a federal court order, Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus (1910–1994) sent the state's National Guard to block the entrance of black students into a Little Rock high school. U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) responded by mobilizing federal troops to enforce the court order to integrate the schools. In response, school officials closed the high school for two years rather than admit blacks.

New organizations

Continued frustration over persistent prejudice and discrimination brought cries for more aggressive steps than those promoted by the NAACP and SCLC. In 1960, black and white college students organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SNCC sponsored protest marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and other confrontational action against Jim Crow laws and policies. These actions served to increase national public awareness about the social barriers black Americans faced.

The Supreme Court in December 1960 ruled that bus and railroad companies traveling across state lines could not impose racial segregation on the vehicles or in waiting rooms, water fountains, and restrooms. To test the compliance with the new ruling, another activist group the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized Freedom Rides in the spring of 1961. Both black and white activists rode two buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. They encountered considerable hostility from whites along the way. Some were beaten and one bus was bombed and burned. The Freedom Riders received considerable attention in the news. Through the summer more than three hundred Freedom Riders were arrested in the South. Many were convicted of disturbing the peace and sent to jail for weeks.

In 1962 and 1963, the spotlight fell on segregation at Southern universities. James Meredith, a student at nearby Jackson State College, applied for law school at the University of Mississippi and was rejected. He went to court challenging his rejection. The Supreme Court ruled that the school must admit him. When the state governor took steps to block Meredith's entrance, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) sent federal marshals to enforce the court ruling. However, the marshals came under attack and a riot broke out on campus, killing 2 bystanders and injuring about 375 students, federal marshals, and others participating in the riots. Despite the problems concerning his acceptance as a student, Meredith graduated from the university in 1964.

In 1963, Alabama governor George Wallace (1919–1998) attempted to block the entrance of blacks at the University of Alabama. This time, Kennedy sent National Guard troops to help the students. In a speech at the door to the university building, Wallace denounced federal efforts to support the civil rights of blacks. Kennedy angrily responded on a nationally televised address calling segregation morally wrong.

The fight over Jim Crow escalates

In the spring of 1963 the SCLC organized marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama protesting lingering Jim Crow policies. On May 2 thousands of schoolchildren took part in one march. The Birmingham police arrested some six hundred children. The following day police used high-powered fire hoses knocking down marchers including children. Police also unleashed dogs on the marchers. News of the events brought more protesters and news coverage to Birmingham. The KKK bombed homes and churches of black people.

Violence spread elsewhere in June 1963 as civil rights activist Medgar Evers (1925–1963) was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers had organized various protests, including sit-ins, and was helping blacks to register to vote. KKK member Byron de la Beckwith (1920–2001) was arrested and charged with murder. Two juries found him not guilty. In 1994—thirty-one years after Evers's murder—Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Discrimination spurred by Jim Crow laws was gradually being overcome in some areas but violence was escalating in others. Discrimination persisted in many other areas untouched by protests and legal challenges. Pushing for stronger federal action, King and other black leaders, including labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979), Roy Wilkins

Black Power

During the turbulent 1960s, black groups formed, eager to take more militant action than what Martin Luther King Jr. had preached. Disappointment mounted over the lack of change in American society's prejudice since the Jim Crow era. Activists advocated forming all-black communities and using violence in reaction to discriminatory practices. Among the groups were the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers. The Black Muslims had formed in 1934 under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975), who advocated creation of a black nation within the United States. By the 1960s, Malcolm X (1925–1965) assumed the leadership role of the Black Muslims and pressed for blacks to fight back as well as separation of the races. He was assassinated in 1965 by members of the Nation of Islam, a religious organization that promoted improved social and economic conditions for black Americans, with whom Malcolm X had political feuds.

Inspired by the ideas of Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton (1942–1989) and Bobby Seale (1936–) founded the Black Panthers in 1966 shortly after Malcolm X's death. The organization initially promoted violent revolution against government authorities. After numerous clashes with police leading to the deaths of some Black Panthers and imprisonment of others, the Black Panthers became less violent. They began providing job training classes for blacks and other peaceful programs.

Also in 1966, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) including Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998) and H. Rap Brown (1943–) formed the Black Power Movement to more militantly combat racial violence. They sought to increase the political power of blacks. One way was to take political and economic control of their communities away from whites and promote a black culture. The movement stressed that "black is beautiful" to increase self-respect and pride in the black communities. In addition, the terms "Negroes" and "colored people"—relic terms from the Jim Crow era—were replaced by such terms as black Americans, African Americans, and Afro-Americans. Trouble followed Brown in later years. After serving five years in prison for robbery in the 1970s he was convicted in 2002 for the killing of a black sheriff's deputy in a grocery store he owned in Atlanta, Georgia, and was sentenced to life in prison.

(1901–1981) of the NAACP, James Farmer (1920–1999) of CORE, and Whitney M. Young Jr. (1921–1971) of the Urban League, organized a massive protest march on Washington, D.C. On August 28, 1963, over two hundred thousand blacks and whites descended on the nation's capital. The highlight of the March on Washington was a series of speeches given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Most notable was King's appeal for racial equality in America, in which he stated that he had a dream that one day all Americans would enjoy equality and justice. King's words came to symbolize the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps in response to the March, a month later in September 1963 a bomb went off at a black church in Birmingham on a Sunday morning killing four young girls.

Following the March, President John F. Kennedy proposed civil rights legislation to end the Jim Crow era discrimination. However it attracted strong opposition in Congress.

Following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) pressed forward with the legislation leading to passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act in July 1964. The act prohibited discrimination in all public places and called for equal opportunity in education and employment. It also authorized the federal government to withhold funds from school districts that refused to admit blacks. Enforcement was difficult because of the lack of cooperation of local authorities in many areas as racial prejudices persisted. The act was a major statement against Jim Crow laws. King won the Nobel Peace Prize that year for his effective nonviolent strategies.

Right to vote

Despite the major gains made in civil rights, many officials in the Jim Crow South still resisted enforcing federal laws and court rulings, including the right to vote. Voter registration drives (efforts to register people eligible to vote but not yet registered with local authorities) to register blacks began in 1963 in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. The voter registration drives escalated in the summer of 1964, nicknamed Freedom Summer due to the belief that the ability to vote would lead to greater social justice and freedom from prejudiced governmental policies and laws. SNCC held Freedom Schools, teaching blacks to read and write so they could pass literacy tests required to vote. In June, three voter registration activists two of whom were white were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi. They were missing for forty-four days until their bodies were found buried in a dam. The deaths spread much fear among blacks in the South that they might face violent deaths if they dared to register to vote. However, the crime proved a rallying point for the civil rights movement and greatly increased public awareness elsewhere in the nation about the persecution minorities faced in the South. Eighteen suspects were arrested, but only seven were convicted.

In January 1965, King journeyed to Selma, Alabama, to help erase voting rights barriers. The resulting protests against local authorities escalated, leading to three deaths and hundreds of beating victims. On March 7, police on horseback clubbed protestors, dramatizing Southern resistance to equal rights. Eight days later on March 15, President Johnson introduced a voting rights bill to Congress. To bring national attention to the bill, King began a massive four-day march on March 20. Thirty thousand protesters walked from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery. They were protected by federal troops mobilized by President Johnson. Another fifty thousand supporters joined the marchers in Montgomery. In another historic speech to the crowd and national media, King demanded that blacks be given the right to vote without unjust restrictions posed by Jim Crow laws and policies.

In reaction to the harsh scenes portrayed on the national news programs of peaceful protesters being beaten by Southern law authorities, the American public pressed for further legal safeguards against racial discrimination. Later that year on August 6, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act banned the poll tax as a voting requirement and placed close federal oversight over Southern voting practices such as voter registration. Any changes in state voting laws had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, and federal officials supervised voter registration where problems had existed in the past. One million black Americans who had never been allowed to cast their ballot before, voted between 1965 and 1968.

Affirmative action

In 1965, President Johnson continued to ease discrimination. Declaring it was not enough to end legally enforced discrimination, he pressed to end Jim Crow discriminatory social customs through affirmative action programs. These programs, some directed by the federal government, were to open up opportunities in education and employment long denied to minorities. Affirmative action programs required that employers and schools favor minority and female applicants in an effort to create a more socially diverse workforce or student body.

In setting examples of his new policy, Johnson appointed Robert C. Weaver (1907–1997) as secretary of housing and urban development in 1966. Weaver was the first black cabinet member in the United States. The following year, Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), a former NAACP lawyer, as the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legacy of Jim Crow

Despite the major political gains, the lasting effects of Jim Crow remained strong. Many black Americans resided in inner-city slums and faced abusive policing. They enjoyed little change from the earlier decades in terms of prejudice and discrimination. The resulting frustration exploded into violence in the mid-1960s. A series of riots occurred in various cities beginning in Harlem in 1964. In 1965, the South Los Angeles community of Watts rioted killing thirty-four, injuring nine hundred and causing $40 million in damage. Four thousand rioters were arrested. Major riots also occurred in Detroit and Washington, D.C. President Johnson established a commission to study the riots and determine the causes. In a report issued in March 1968, the commission focused on racial prejudice promoted by the Jim Crow era that led to persistent segregation, poor housing, high unemployment, few educational opportunities, and hunger. The report stated that the United States was becoming two societies, one black and one white. The commission recommended major federal programs to address the needs of black America to recover from Jim Crow discrimination.

Only a short time after the report was released, King was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support a strike by city workers. Riots erupted in response to the assassination in almost one hundred communities. In response, Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included the Fair Housing Act. The housing act prohibited racial discrimination in the rental and sale of most housing in the United States.

Recovery from Jim Crow

Laws banning discrimination aided by affirmative action programs ended the Jim Crow era in the late 1960s. The actions of courageous activists and government leaders contributed to a significant increase in black student enrollments in previously all-white schools. The 1970s saw the high school enrollments of black youth increase from 1.8 million in 1970 to 2.2 million in 1979; students and college enrollment rose from 600,000 to one million from 1970 to 1979. In addition, the number of black-owned businesses grew from 185,000 to 235,000 during the same time period. During this period, a black studies movement developed, increasing awareness and appreciation of black heritage to further the psychological and social healing from Jim Crow prejudices.

With blacks' right to vote protected, the number of blacks elected as government officials rose sharply by the late 1970s. Before long, blacks were elected as mayors of cities including Tom Bradley (1917–1998) of Los Angeles who became one of the first black American mayors of a major city in 1973. Despite these gains, the fight against racial prejudice and discrimination in America continued into the twenty-first century.

For More Information


Chafe, William H. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Collier, Christopher. Reconstruction and the Rise of Jim Crow, 1864–1896. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.

Darby, Jean. Martin Luther King. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1990.

Horton, James O., and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889–1918. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

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

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


National Civil Rights Museum. http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/ (accessed on November 29, 2006).

"The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow." pbs.orghttp://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/ (accessed on November 29, 2006).

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Racial Segregation in the American South: Jim Crow Laws

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