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A depiction of T.D. Rice's "Jim Crow"
In the United States, the so-called Jim Crow laws were made to enforce racial segregation, and included laws that would prevent African Americans from doing things that a white person could do. For instance, Jim Crow laws regulated separate use of water fountains and separate seating sections on public transport. Jim Crow laws varied among communities and states. The term is not applied to all racist laws, but only to those passed post-Reconstruction starting in about 1890, the start of a period of worsening race relations in the United States. Similar laws passed immediately after the civil war were called the Black Codes.
The conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865 led to the policy of Reconstruction, in which the federal government intervened to protect the rights conferred on black Americans by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as (upon their introductions) the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In almost-immediate response Southern legislatures passed Black Codes, which attempted to return freed slaves to bondage in legal fact, rather than official terminology.
This government-controlled Reconstruction ended by 1877. In its aftermath the resurgent white elites, who referred to themselves as redeemers , reversed many of the civil rights gains that black Americans had made during Reconstruction, passing laws that mandated discrimination by both local governments and by private citizens. These became known as the Jim Crow laws, a reference to the character Jim Crow (popular in antebellum minstrel entertainment) that was a racist stage depiction of a poor and uneducated rural black. Since Jim Crow law is a blanket term for any of this type of legislation following the end of Reconstruction, the exact date of inception for the laws is difficult to isolate; common consensus points to the 1890s and the adoption of segregational railroad legislation in New Orleans as the first genuine "Jim Crow" law. By 1915 every Southern state had effectively destroyed any gains in civil liberties that blacks had enjoyed due to the Reconstructionist effort.
As an example, many state governments prevented blacks from voting by requiring poll taxes and literacy tests, both of which were not enforced on whites due to grandfather clauses. One common "literacy test" was to require the black would-be voter to recite the entire U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence from memory.
The Supreme Court of the United States held in the Civil Rights Cases 109 US 3 (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the power to outlaw private discrimination, then held in Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 (1896) that Jim Crow laws were constitutional as long as they allowed for separate but equal facilities. In the years that followed, the Court made this "separate but equal" requirement a hollow phrase by approving discrimination even in the face of evidence of profound inequalities in practice.
It is estimated that of 181,471 African-American males of voting age in Alabama in 1900, only 3,000 were registered.
In 1902, Reverend Thomas Dixon published the novel The Leopard's Spots, which intentionally fanned racial animosity.
The Supreme Court began to overturn Jim Crow laws on constitutional grounds in the 20th century. The Supreme Court held in Guinn v. United States 238 US 347 (1915) that an Oklahoma law that denied the right to vote to some citizens was unconstitutional. (Nonetheless, the majority of African Americans were unable to vote in most states in the Deep South of the USA until the 1950s or 1960s.) In Buchanan v. Warley 245 US 60 (1917), the Court held that a Kentucky law could not require residential segregation. The court outlawed the white primary in Smith v. Allwright 321 US 649 (1944), and in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 (1954) the Court held that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools. These decisions, along with other cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents 339 US 637 (1950), NAACP v. Alabama 357 US 449 (1958), and Boynton v. Virginia 364 US 454 (1960), slowly dismantled the state-sponsored segregation imposed by Jim Crow laws.
In addition to Jim Crow laws, in which the state compelled segregation of the races. Businesses, political parties, unions and other private parties created their own Jim Crow arrangements, barring blacks from buying homes in certain neighborhoods, from shopping or working in certain stores, from working at certain trades, etc. The Supreme Court outlawed some forms of private discrimination in Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 (1948), in which it held that "restrictive covenants" that barred sale of homes to blacks or Jews or Asians were unconstitutional, on the ground that they represented state-sponsored discrimination in that they were only effective if the courts enforced them.
The Supreme Court was unwilling, however, to attack other forms of private discrimination; it reasoned that private parties did not violate the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution when they discriminated because they were not "state actors" covered by that clause.
However, in 1964 that U.S. Congress invoked the commerce clause to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, i.e., privately owned restaurants, hotels and stores, and in private schools and workplaces, that Congress attacked the parallel system of private Jim Crow practices. This use of the Commerce clause was upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 US 241 (1964).
As attitudes turned against segregation in the Federal courts after World War II, the segregationist white governments of many of the states of the South East countered with even more numerous and strict segregation laws on the local level until the start of the 1960s. The modern civil rights movement is often considered to have been sparked by an act of civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. This led to a series of legislation and court decisions in which Jim Crow laws were repealed or annulled.
However, the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., which followed Rosa Park's long planned decision not to give up her seat, did not come in a vacuum. Numerous boycotts and demonstrations against segregation had occurred throughout the 1930's and 1940's. These early demonstrations achieved positive results and helped spark political activism. For instance, K. Leroy Irvis of Pittsburg's Urban League led a demonstration against employment discrimination by Pittsburgh's deparrtment stores in 1947, and later became the first 20th Century African American to serve as a state Speaker of the House.
The term Jim Crow comes from the minstrel show song "Jump Jim Crow" written in 1828 by Thomas D. Rice, a white English migrant to the U.S., the originator of blackface performance. The song and blackface itself were an immediate hit. "Jim Crow" became a standard character in Minstrel shows, being a caricature of a shabbily dressed rural black; "Jim Crow" was often paired with the character "Zip Coon", a flamboyantly dressed urban black. By 1837, Jim Crow was being used to refer to racial segregation.
In conjunction with the laws there was also Jim Crow etiquette: a set of unwritten rules governing how blacks and whites should interact. One dimension of this involved applying pressure on Úlite white women not to engage in liaisons with black men on pain of losing their upper-class status and community support. Informally enforced by the good ol' boy network and the Ku Klux Klan, breaking this code could result in lynchings (1878-1898 saw 10,000 lynchings) or other forms of sadistic murder. The murders of Sam Hose and Emmett Till, more than fifty years apart, serve as examples.
- Racial Etiquette: The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behavior in Jim Crow America http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/resources/lessonplans/hs_es_etiquette.htm - A detailed article outlining the basics of Jim Crow etiquette.
- What Was Jim Crow? http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/what.htm
- An article on "New Racist Forms: Jim Crow in the 21st Century" http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/newforms/
Last updated: 02-03-2005 11:11:43
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55