Jim Crow Laws

A sign in Montgomery, Alabama, showing separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites

What was Jim Crow?

Jim Crow was a set of laws sponsored by Southern States that required the separation of white and colored people in parks, schools, public places, theaters, restaurants, inns and transportation, intermarriage was also prohibited. Rules were different for blacks and whites and different states had its set of rules. Jim Crow was in simple terms state sponsored segregation and racism.

In addition to three Constitutional Amendments Congress passed two Civil Right Acts during the Reconstruction period in order to prevent more discrimination and integrate slaves. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave citizenship to African Americans and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 stated that no citizen can be denied equal use of public facilities on the basis of color. However in 1883 it was reversed by the Supreme Court declaring it against the 14th Amendment. It declared that Congress did not have the authority to prevent discrimination by private individuals and that individual businesses have the right to choose their own clientele. Victims of racial discrimination should seek support from the states and not from the Federal Government.

By 1877 all Reconstruction governments in the South were replaced by conservatives intimidating African Americans and repealing legislation. In 1890 the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law preventing colored and white people from sharing public transportation. Governments in the South passed legislation enforcing Jim Crow laws that prohibited African Americans from voting, owning property or renting. Many former slaves were unable to pay poll taxes, meet the property requirements and pass the literacy test to register and vote. Even if they did meet all the requirements they were harassed and intimidated from voting.

Jim Crow laws were solidified in 1896 by the decision of the US Supreme Court in Plessy v Ferguson. Homer Plessy argued that Louisiana’s Separate Car Act violated the 14th Amendment. Ferguson argued that the 14th Amendment guaranteed legal equality and not social equality with whites. The Supreme Court ruled that states could establish separate facilities for colored people as long as they were offered equal accommodations. This “equal but separate” policy lasted in the South until 1954 when Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education.

Who was Jim Crow?

Jim Crow was known as the group of laws adopted by southern states discriminating against African Americans. The name was adopted from “Jump, Jim Crow”, a theater act performed by Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Rice impersonated an African American slave by painting his face black, wearing ragged clothing and imitating his behavior and demeanor. From day one the act was a hit in New York, he went on tour as his popularity grew.

Somehow this racist performance in New York came to represent racist laws in the South. Jim Crow was also a derogatory term for African Americans.

Origin of Jim Crow

Thomas Dartmouth Rice who created “Jump Jim Crow”

Jim Crow laws originated in 1865 after the end of the Civil War and lasted until the 1960s. Former Confederate States enacted Jim Crow Laws to restrict African Americans and ensure that they remain segregated under a “separate but equal” status. Jim Crow laws originated from slave codes which prohibited slaves from learning how to read and write, gathering in groups for worship or bearing arms. Slave codes aimed at preserving slavery. Now that slaves were emancipated Southern states had to figure out how to safeguard previously free labor and keep them apart from their society.