What Were The Jim Crow Laws?

An African-American man at a segregated restroom and drinking fountain in Oklahoma City in the Summer of 1939.

5. Historical Background

The Jim Crow Laws were successors to the Black Codes that existed in the Southern states from 1800 through 1866, which had been formulated to restrict the civil liberties of African Americans. The nomenclature can be attributed to a popular song-and-dance caricature of blacks called ‘Jump Jim Crow’ by white actor Thomas Rice in the 1830s. Racial segregation was accompanied by a ‘separate but equal status’ for African Americans but the reality was far short of the ideal. Conditions for African Americans were inferior and public facilities severely underfunded. The Jim Crow laws institutionalized a plethora of educational, economic and social disadvantages in all of the former Confederate states.

4. Jim Crow Legislation after Reconstruction

At the end of the American Civil War, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, and then his successor Andrew Johnson, were committed to bringing the former Confederate States back within the Union and into normalcy as soon as possible. In the Reconstruction Era, Republicans championed the rights of the freed slaves and were in favor of harsh terms for Southern states, which discriminated against African Americans. They worked for favorable working conditions, enfranchisement, and equal status for the latter. But in the South, tensions arose within the Republican ranks, between northern immigrants and native whites of the south. The latter, egged on by the Democrats, opposed Republican rule, and by 1877 the Democrats had recaptured power in all of the Southern states. Meanwhile, public support for Reconstruction faded as the Civil War became history. Southern governments soon developed a legal system to re-establish society based on "white supremacy". They passed laws known as the Jim Crow laws, which enforced the segregation of whites and blacks in all public spaces, including schools, buses and trains. They also passed laws that effectively barred African American men from voting, stifling their civil rights.

3. Similar Laws Elsewhere In The U.S.

Although the Northern U.S. states did not have an official segregation agenda or other divisive policies, African Americans were discriminated against implicitly. Private covenants enforced "ghettoism" and prejudiced bank lending practices. There was discrimination in employment opportunities as well as labor union practices. Even the U.S. military and Federal workplaces were segregated after 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson mandated candidates to submit photos with job applications. His administration practiced racial discrimination in their hiring policies.

2. The Civil Rights Movement

The legal precedent of ‘separate but equal’ had come into effect with Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. In 1954, the Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education, finally overturned the principle. The Civil Rights Movement had had been a decades-long struggle but the Brown judgement was a major turning point. The legal doctrine that was the pseudo-justification for white supremacy in the United States was a major victory of the Civil Rights Movement. A valiant, ongoing campaign for civil rights has steadily lifted the nation closer to its constitutional ideals of freedom and equality. The election of Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American President, is a case in point.

1. Learning from a Dark Past Legacy

Until the mid-1850s, United States was deeply divided over the issues of white supremacy and racial equality. When the Brown v. Board judgment was enforced, there was surprisingly intense resistance among white Southerners. But even they had underestimated the dogged determination of their African-American compatriots and the rising tide of change. As the struggle for racial equality spread across the U.S., the original campaign for racial desegregation became part of a broader campaign for social justice. Today, the campaign has become an umbrella movement that works for better rights of other ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, and other underprivileged groups.


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