Jim Crow

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Minstrel character "Jim Crow"

Jim Crow was the system of laws passed by Democrats promoting racial segregation in the Southern U.S. from the 1880s to 1964 in which African Americans were segregated (separated) in public schools and public places, so that they could not mingle in public with whites on equal terms. In addition to segregation, Jim Crow also assured that blacks had little or no political power. Jim Crow laws such as literacy tests and poll taxes aimed at supressing the vote were intended to ensure that the Republican party, which freed the slaves and promoted Black equality, never would benefit from the Black vote. It was a low point in Black history after the euphoria of Reconstruction. It is also sometimes used as a slur for African Americans.

Supreme Court approves

The Supreme Court of the United States held in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the power to outlaw private discrimination. In an even more important decision, the Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that Jim Crow laws were constitutional as long as they allowed for "separate but equal" facilities. Of course, in practice facilities were nowhere near "equal"; facilities for Whites were in far better condition than those for Blacks.

Courts reverse

After 1945, the Civil Rights movement gained momentum and used federal courts to attack Jim Crow. The Supreme Court declared legal, or de jure, public school segregation unconstitutional in 1954 in Brown vs. Board of Education. The federal courts then systematically ended Jim Crow in practice by the 1970s.[1]

President Lyndon B. Johnson, building a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans from the north, pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which immediately ended Jim Crow laws that segregated restaurants, hotels and theatres; these facilities (with rare exceptions) immediately dropped racial segregation. In 1965 the federal Voting Rights Act ended discrimination in voting for all federal, state and local elections.

Conservatives and liberals alike denounce the policy of Jim Crow as an unacceptable violation of the principle of equal rights for all.
the standard history

De Facto Segregation

"De facto" segregation refers to the practice of segregation, especially in Northern cities, that was in effect by custom and not by law. The court ruling did not stop de facto or informal segregation. The federal courts tried to end it in school districts by ordering the busing of students to achieve racial balance in the schools. Busing was enormously unpopular (and was never ordered by Congress), and the courts generally ended the practice by the 1990s.

De Jure segregation

"De jure" or legal segregation took place when state laws required it, in the South and some border states. These laws mandated the physical separation of the races in order to create a social distance and minimize violence. The facilities purchased by taxpayers for black use was almost always inferior to those provided to whites. The most important laws required that public schools, public places and public transportation, like trains and buses, have separate facilities for whites and blacks. (These Jim Crow Laws were separate from the 1800-66 "Black Codes", which had defined an inferior legal status for free blacks.) State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in the seminal case of Brown v. Board of Education. All of the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During the Reconstruction period of 1863–77, federal law provided civil rights protection in the South for freedmen—the African-Americans who had formerly been slaves. Reconstruction ended at different dates (the latest 1877), and was followed in each southern state by Redeemer governments that passed the Jim Crow laws to separate the races. In the Progressive Era, the restrictions were formalized, and segregation was extended to the federal government when the Democratic party held the White House, 1913–21.


In the first stage of "Presidential Reconstruction," from 1865–66, the all-white southern legislatures abolished laws regarding slavery but passed the black codes, which gave new rights to the freedmen but fewer than whites possessed. The codes were not actually enforced but they caused a sharp reaction in the North. The Radical Republicans passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which gave freedmen legal rights (but not the right to vote). The country passed the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution by 1870, guaranteeing civil rights and the right to vote. The southern states came under Republican control— a party comprising the Freedmen, white Southerners ("Scalawags") and migrants from the North (Carpetbaggers). The Ku Klux Klan and related groups reacted violently, but they were suppressed by President Ulysses S. Grant using the federal courts and troops. By 1877, the Democrats, forming a Redeemer coalition, ousted all the Republican governments. From 1877 until the 1970s, the Southern Democrats largely controlled every southern state.


After 1877, the Redeemers reversed many of the civil rights gains that African Americans had made during Reconstruction, passing laws that mandated discrimination by both local governments and by private citizens. Since "Jim Crow law" is a blanket term for any of this type of legislation, the date of inception for the laws varies by state. The most important laws came in the 1890s with the adoption of legislation segregating railroad cars in New Orleans as the first genuine Jim Crow law. By 1915, under the Democrats, every southern state had effectively destroyed the gains in civil rights and liberties that blacks had enjoyed from the Reconstructionist efforts.

Many of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws were enacted to support racial segregation in everyday life. They required black and white people to use separate water fountains, public schools, public bath houses, restaurants, public libraries, buses and rail cars—even without legal segregation.

In the South, before the resort to widespread legal segregation around 1890, de facto segregation had replaced exclusion in Southern race relations. The integration stage was largely bypassed. Radical measures helped to institutionalize this shift to segregation. Both white Republicans and Redeemers came to embrace the new segregation policies, though often for different reasons. Even the attitudes of blacks helped to assure the shift. Lack of white support, black self-respect, economic pressures, tactical emphasis on securing better "separate but equal" facilities, and the development of group identity all shaped blacks' attitudes.[2]

Virginia Governor James L. Kemper (1874–77) and like-minded conservatives sought interracial peace and implemented racial policies which were less anti-Negro and which gave fuller recognition than historians have conceded. The Virginia Redeemers attempted to shape race relations to conform to what C. Vann Woodward has defined as the conservative philosophy. Kemper and the Virginia Redeemers deserve to rank in history alongside the Wade Hamptons and other proponents of the conservative philosophy.[3]

The Redeemer system of Jim Crow meant that for the first time black teachers and principals controlled black education. Rabinowitz (1974) studies the transformation from white to black teachers in southern schools in the post-Civil War years, using the experiences of five Southern cities to provide a cross-section: Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama; and Richmond, Virginia. Among the problems the Redeemers confronted were such matters as the removal of Northern missionary ties and teachers in order to reassert Southern control of the school system, the black demand for black teachers which was often accepted since it meant cheaper teachers, and the resultant black demand for equal salary for equal work, a demand usually denied. African Americans tried to obtain better quality instruction for their children, more administrative positions, and positions on the school board, but were usually unsuccessful. Ironically, since some schools became entirely black, insistence upon black instructors made it easier for the whites to discriminate.[4]

Voting disfranchisement

Between 1890 and 1920, many state governments under Democrat control prevented most blacks from voting by various techniques, such as poll taxes (a person had to pay a voluntary tax to vote) and fake literacy tests (that whites always passed but blacks always failed).[5] Of 181,000 African-American males of voting age in Alabama in 1900, only 3,000 were registered to vote. Typically, the ministers and ten to fifty prominent blacks in every county were allowed to vote.

Segregation approved by the courts

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, legislation introduced by Charles Sumner and Benjamin F. Butler. It seemed to guarantee that everyone, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, was entitled to the same treatment in "public accommodations" (inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement).

In 1883, the Supreme Court restricted the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to actions by state and local government. It ruled Congress could not control private persons or corporations. After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, it did not pass another civil rights law until 1957 due to Democrat obstruction.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring separate accommodations for colored and white passengers on railroads. Louisiana law distinguished between "white," "black" and "colored" (that is, people of mixed white and black ancestry). The law already had provided that blacks could not ride with white people, but colored people could ride with whites prior to 1890. A group of concerned black, colored and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to the repeal of the law. They had Homer Plessy purchase a first-class railroad ticket. Plessy was directed to leave that car and sit instead in the "coloreds only" car. He refused and was immediately arrested. The Citizens Committee of New Orleans fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. They lost in 1896, and Plessy v. Ferguson validated the segregation laws as "constitutional".

Jim Crow was supported politically by nearly all white politicians. To do otherwise was political death. The Southern states formed a "Solid South"—that is the region voted for (almost) all Democrat candidates at the state level, and was a powerful bloc in presidential elections.[6] The Democrats dominated all aspects of local, state, and federal political life in the post-Civil War South, into the 1970s and 1980s. In 1956, nearly all Southern Congressmen and Senators signed the "Southern Manifesto," condemning the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Black opposition

Booker T. Washington publicly accepted Jim Crow, but secretly financed numerous cases in federal court that chipped away at the system. In general, the black community in the South quietly accepted the system and did not cause trouble. In the North the black political leadership routinely denounced Jim Crow in the South (where it was part of state law) and ignored informal Jim Crow in the North.

When black soldiers returning from World War II recoiled at the second class Jim Crow citizenship in the South, the movement for Civil Rights was renewed. The NAACP Legal Defense Committee (a group independent of the NAACP)—and its lawyer Thurgood Marshall—brought the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, before the Supreme Court.[7] In 1954, the court under Earl Warren unanimously overturned the 1896 Plessy decision in its ruling; Thurgood Marshall later became the first black Supreme Court Justice.

Social mobility for blacks

Jim Crow limited black upward mobility and opportunity. Therefore, millions moved to Northern cities in the Great Migration (1917-1960).

African-American entertainers, musicians, and literary figures had separate, small niches in the world of art and culture in the North. The most successful writers formed the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s in New York City, Jazz musicians developed their new music in Jim Crow-era Memphis and New Orleans, and took it north to Chicago and New York to largely black audiences (whites could hear jazz in the North, but were not allowed in all-black venues in the South).[Citation Needed]

African-American athletes found Jim Crow stood against them nationally. By 1900, white opposition to African-American boxers, baseball players, track athletes, and basketball players kept them segregated and limited in what they could do. But their prowess and abilities in all-African-American teams and sporting events could not be denied, and the barriers to African-American participation in all the major sports began to crumble in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the wake of the spectacular breakthrough of Jackie Robinson into baseball in 1947 in Brooklyn.

Twentieth century

In the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to overturn a few Jim Crow laws on constitutional grounds. In Buchanan v. Warley 245 US 60 (1917), the court held that Kentucky could not require residential segregation. The Supreme Court in 1946, in Irene Morgan v. Virginia ruled segregation in interstate transportation to be unconstitutional, though its reasoning stemmed from the commerce clause of the Constitution rather than any moral objection to the practice. The impact of these Court decisions was small, but they set the legal basis for the major breakthrough in 1954.

In 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 that the Court under the firm guidance of Chief Justice Earl Warren unanimously held that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools. It effectively overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and outlawed Jim Crow in other areas of society as well. A series of followup decisions slowly dismantled the state-sponsored school segregation laws, but left standing most segregation in practice.

Cafe in Durham, North Carolina, 1940. with separate doors and seating for "White" and for "Colored." Most restaurants, theaters and sporting venues in the South had separate seating sections. New Deal Democrats introduced separate eating areas in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. among one of their first acts. Republican Rep. Oscar De Priest, the lone African American in the entire Congress, was forced to eat in hallway beside the kitchen in the basement.[8] Jack Delano, FSA photographer

Besides state laws that compelled segregation of the races, private organizations were almost wholly segregated in the South.

Informal segregation

Most clubs and labor unions in the North excluded blacks—not on the basis of state law but on the basis of their own rules and traditions. Blacks could not buy houses in certain neighborhoods, nor join labor unions that controlled access to many skilled trades.

The Supreme Court undercut 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 could not be enforced in courts. The restrictive covenants, however, remained in place until 1964.

The Supreme Court was unwilling, however, to attack other forms of de facto 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.

After World War II, as attitudes in the Federal courts turned against segregation, the segregationist white governments of many of the states of the Southeast countered with even more numerous and strict segregation laws on the local level until the start of the 1960s. The modern Civil Rights movement has been dated to the action of Birmingham leaders who sent Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on a bus to a white man after being ordered to do so by the bus driver. This act of civil disobedience, and the demonstrations that it spawned, led to a series of legislation and court decisions in which Jim Crow laws were repealed.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. which followed Rosa Parks' action, was not an isolated case. Numerous boycotts and demonstrations against segregation had occurred throughout the 1930s and 1940s. These early demonstrations achieved positive results and helped spark political activism. For instance, K. Leroy Irvis of Pittsburgh's Urban League led a demonstration against employment discrimination by Pittsburgh's department stores in 1947, and he became the first 20th century African-American to serve as a state Speaker of the House.

In 1964, the U.S. Congress attacked the parallel system of private Jim Crow practices. It invoked the commerce clause to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations (privately owned restaurants, hotels, and stores, and in private schools and workplaces). This use of the commerce clause was upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 US 241 (1964).

In 1971, the Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upheld busing of students to achieve integration.

End of de jure segregation

In January, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders. Johnson had long disliked Jim Crow, and now had the votes in Congress to end it. In his first State of the Union address in January 1964, Johnson asked Congress to "let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined." Johnson mobilized support from Northern members of Congress of both parties, with strong grass roots support from Protestant churches, liberal labor unions, and civil rights activists. Support was increased by a flow of negative publicity from the South, such as the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi. On July 2, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Origins of imagery

The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, who, between 1828 and 1831, developed a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled black slave, dubbed Jim Crow.[9]

On the eve of the Civil War, the universal image of the silly Jim Crow minstrel character provided one of many stereotypical images of black inferiority that were a fundamental component of white popular culture. By the 1890s, the term had come to mean the separation of blacks from whites and the general customs and laws that subordinated blacks as an inferior people.[10]

Basic further reading

  • Bond, Horace Mann. “The Extent and Character of Separate Schools in the United States.” Journal of Negro Education 4(July 1935):321–27. in JSTOR, by a leading black scholar
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) Highly influential classic history by Pulitzer prize winner. excerpt and text search; complete text online at ACLS e-books, by a leading white scholar; a highly influential book


  • Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South (1992), a general history of the South in the late 19th century online edition
  • Barnes, Catherine A. Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit , 1983.
  • Bartley, Numan V. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s (1969).
  • Bond, Horace Mann. “The Extent and Character of Separate Schools in the United States.” Journal of Negro Education 4(July 1935):321–27. in JSTOR
  • Chafe, William Henry, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, eds. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Gabriel Chin & Hrishi Karthikeyan, Preserving Racial Identity: Population Patterns and the Application of Anti-Miscegenation Statutes to Asians, 1910 to 1950, 9 Asian L.J. (2002)
  • Dailey, Jane, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds. Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (2000), essays by scholars on impact of Jim Crow on black communities online edition
  • Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. (1994).
  • Fairclough, Adam. "'Being in the Field of Education and Also Being a Negro…Seems…Tragic': Black Teachers in the Jim Crow South." Journal of American History 87 (June 2000): 65–91. in JSTOR
  • Feldman, Glenn. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915–1949. (1999). online edition
  • Fireside, Harvey. Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision That Legalized Racism, (2004).
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction, America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988), ISBN 0-06-015851-4, standard history of Reconstruction from neoabolitionist school
  • Gaines, Kevin. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996). online edition
  • Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Gender and Jim Crow Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (1996) online edition; also excerpt and text search
  • Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me (1996) A Southern white reporter darkens his skin to experience segregation in the Deep South in 1959.
  • Haws, Robert, ed. The Age of Segregation: Race Relations in the South, 1890– 1945, 1978.
  • Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (1969)
  • Kantrowitz, Stephen. Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Kantrowitz, Stephen. "Ben Tillman and Hendrix McLane, Agrarian Rebels: White Manhood, 'The Farmers,' and the Limits of Southern Populism," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Aug., 2000), pp. 497–524 in JSTOR
  • Kennedy, Randall. Martin Luther King's Constitution: a Legal History of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 98 Yale Law Journal 999-1067 (April, 1989) pp 999–1067 online edition without footnotes; complete edition from JSTOR
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Lipsitz, George. "'Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac': White Supremacy, Antiblack Racism, and the New Historicism," American Literary History, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 700–725 in JSTOR
  • Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998) excerpt and text search
  • McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. (1989). excerpt and text search
  • Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Highly influential and detailed analysis of the Jim Crow system in operation. excerpt and text search
  • Newby, I. A. Jim Crow's Defense: Anti-Negro Thought in America, 1900-1930 (1965)
  • Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son. (1941). by conservative white planter excerpt and text search
  • Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1856–1890 (1978)
  • Ritterhouse, Jennifer. Growing Up Jim Crow: The Racial Socialization of Black and White Southern Children, 1890-1940. (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Smith, John David, ed. When Did Southern Segregation Begin? (2001), 194pp excerpt and text search
  • Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia, (2002) online edition
  • Smith, J. Douglas. "The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922–1930: 'Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro.'" Journal of Southern History 68 (February 2002): 65–106. online edition
  • Sterner, Richard. The Negro's share: a study of income, consumption, housing, and public assistance (1943), statistical analysis of 1930s ACLS E-book
  • Williams, Juan, and Julian Bond. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (1988) excerpt and text search
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) Highly influential classic history by Pulitzer prize winner. excerpt and text search; complete text online at ACLS e-books
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 (1951). complete text online at ACLS e-books

See also


  1. Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (2006)
  2. Howard N. Rabinowitz, "From Exclusion To Segregation: Southern Race Relations, 1865-1890." Journal of American History 1976 63(2): 325-350. in JSTOR
  3. Robert R. Jones, "James L. Kemper and the Virginia Redeemers Face the Race Question: A Reconsideration." Journal of Southern History 1972 38(3): 393-414. 0022-4642
  4. Howard N. Rabinowitz, "Half a Loaf: The Shift from White to Black Teachers in the Negro Schools of the Urban South, 1865-1890." Journal of Southern History 1974 40(4):565-594. in JSTOR
  5. Whites who would be limited by the voting laws were protected by "grandfather clauses"--they could vote if their grandfather could vote. These clauses were found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1915.
  6. Republicans Herbert Hoover in 1928 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 were the only Republicans to win notable support in the white South between 1876 and 1960.
  7. The main NAACP is often assumed to be involved in the case. Not true; the totally separate NAACP Legal Defense Committee handled it all.
  8. https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/D/DE-PRIEST,-Oscar-Stanton-(D000263)/
  9. http://www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/minstrel.htm
  10. http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/scripts/jimcrow/glossary.cgi

External links