In the years immediately following the Civil War, the newly emancipated African Americans were eager to take charge and embrace the freedoms that they were newly granted. However, many of the white Americans in the South were against the introduction of blacks into society as their peers and equals. Even though the South had just lost the Civil War, the white men were determined to keep the involvement of the African-Americans to a minimum by repressing and hampering the efforts of the African-Americans to obtain their constitutional rights guaranteed by the newest amendments to the Constitution. To that end, many laws were gradually introduced into the legislatures of the Southern states, designed to take advantage of some of the loopholes that emerged from the new amendments. These laws were collectively known as the Jim Crow laws.
Jim Crow, the stereotype of the African-American.3
The origins of the term "Jim Crow" can be traced back to a song and dance known as "Jump Jim Crow" in 1828 by a white comedian known as Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Also going by the name of "Daddy," Rice created this routine earlier in the decade. He was supposedly inspired by watching a crippled black man known as "Jim Cuff" on a Cincinnati levee, dancing to his own accord.1 After some time, he imitated this dance while smearing grease paint on his face, a technique now known as "blackface." While dancing, he sang, ending his performance with the lines:
''"Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow."'' 2
His performance became an immediate hit, as he garnered many fans as he traveled, dancing his mockery of the African-American. Rice eventually traveled throughout the United States, performing the Jim Crow dance under the name of "Daddy Jim Crow."
The effect that this simple show had was astounding--it paved the way for further depravation and humiliation of the African-American man. Many agree that this was the first step in a tradition of folk music that revolved around mocking Africans--their traditions, their mannerisms, and most importantly their appearances. The popularity of this form of entertainment increased nearly exponentially in the next decade or so, further entrenching this image into the general ideas of the South through the use of minstrel shows. Eventually, the term "Jim Crow" became synonymous with the typical African- American--the image of a stupid, carefree man who was 'unfit' to be labeled a citizen.
Jim Crow to 1896
Immediately following the end of the Civil War, the political makeup of the South was quite polarized. Democrats had controlled nearly all of the Southern legislatures, and in compliance with the tenets of Reconstruction, all were required to pass laws abolishing slavery. However, many of the Southern legislatures passed what are known as the Black Codes, which were the first step into cutting into the rights and civil liberties that the African- Americans had earned as a result of the end of the Civil War. The Black Codes can be seen as the predecessor to that of the Jim Crow laws, as they were the first pieces of legislation passed that openly denied African-Americans certain civil rights.
For many blacks, it was the beginning of the end--their rights were slowly being eroded at with each new law. Although the nation ratified the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right to vote and civil liberties to African-Americans, this by no means was a solution. The Fifteenth Amendment did guarantee that ''The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,'' 4, but legislators found their ways around this guarantee and began to implement them where they held power. By 1877, in the wake of the end of Reconstruction, the southern Democrats stood together and successfully expelled all of the Republicans that held power in the South. Now in control, the Jim Crow laws only intensified--as they were being drafted and adopted into the states' coda of laws, the legislation that was passed during the initial phase of Reconstruction was being repealed.
In addition to legislation, the people of the South resorted to another weapon to keep the African-American population quiet--fear. The most notorious showing of this doctrine was the Ku Klux Klan, a vicious supremacist association that used terror to keep the free blacks quiet and out of the polls and other places where they could effect change. Their primary objectives were to ensure that the social and the political statuses of the freed slaves remained strictly inferior to that of the whites. They would often be out in force during elections, using physical violence and other terror tactics to keep the freed slaves from voting, and thus keep them subdued in the political world. Public lynchings soon became commonplace as the Klan sought out those who stood up for free slaves' rights, as well as any African-Americans that they could find. Their beatings were described as "Perhaps the most usual has been the dragging of men and women from their beds, and beating their naked bodies with hickory switches, or as witnesses in an examination the other day said, 'sticks' between a 'switch' and a 'club'."5 The combination of both terror activities and tightening legislation went to the extent that by 1915, practically all of the gains that the freed slaves had enjoyed were effectively erased.
Plessy v. Ferguson
An African-American forced to relinquish his seat in a "whites only" car.6
The debate over the legality of the Jim Crow laws had been quite active since the inception of the laws, but the Plessy v. Ferguson case was the first and perhaps the most controversial decision that the Supreme Court handed down on this matter. Prior to the case in 1896, New Orleans became one of the first states to pass a law that could fall under the moniker of a "Jim Crow" law--a law that required railroad companies to provide seperate cars for white, black, and mixed ancestry customers. In 1892, a man known as Homer Plessy tried to board the car reserved for whites. Although he was only one-eighths black, he was required to move to the car for those of mixed descent. He resisted, and was arrested. He appealed his case all the way up to 1896, when the Supreme Court took on the case. Plessy claimed that his rights as guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments were being abridged by this action, but the Court did not agree. In a 7-1 decision, the Court upheld the decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing the majority opinion, wrote the following:
''"Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish
distinctions based on physical differences....If the civil and political
rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or
politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution
of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."''7
Only one justice, John Harlan, dissented from the opinion. In his scathing opinion, he wrote:
''"Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes
among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the
law...In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to
be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred
Effects of the Decision
The effects of this decision were explosive, much like Harlan predicted. Many Southern legislators heralded this decision, as it was in line with what they had believed all along. The Jim Crow laws now had a Supreme Court ruling backing them--and thus, the tenet of separate but equal was conceived. The decision allowed for separate facilities to be set aside for whites and colored people so long as they were equal. Southern legislators, however, saw this as a carte blanche for the expansion of their racist ideals into laws. Between the years of 1890 and 1920, these laws quickly entered their way into the legislatures of many Southern states. These laws affected all walks of life, from education--where in Oklahoma, any teacher found in control of a classroom with both whites and African-Americans were deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and fined--to entertainment, where in Louisiana, all circuses and other exhibitions "to which the attendance of...more than one race is invited or expected to attend shall provide for the convenience of its patrons not less than two ticket offices with individual ticket sellers, and not less than two entrances to the said performance, with individual ticket takers and receivers, and in the case of outside or tent performances, the said ticket offices shall not be less than twenty-five (25) feet apart."9
In addition to promoting segregation in everyday life, Southern governments used a variety of laws and tactics to prevent African-Americans from receiving the ballot. These tactics included direct barring of voting rights from the affected parties, to more subtle techniques like the use of a poll tax or a literacy test that tested a prospective voter's knowledge of the American government system and its history. This, coupled with the deteriorating quality of the facilities reserved for use by the non-white citizens, made life quite difficult for those affected.
Decline of Jim Crow
However, there was a ray of hope for those who suffered due to the racist laws of the South. Into the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to look again at the laws of the South and reconsider their constitutionality. There were some minor cases in the early parts of the 20th century, but the case that proved to be the decisive turning point in the fight against Jim Crow was the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. The case itself was an amalgamation of five separate cases, but it made no difference to the justices at the time. In an unanimous decision, the Court's decision, written by Earl Warren, declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and thus was unconstitutional. In the opinion:
''"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a
detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it
has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually
interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of
inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the
sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and
mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the
benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."''10
The effects of this decision were as explosive as that of Plessy. The court had fully reversed its decision on the former case and had ordered the states to begin to repeal the laws that they had set into place. This labeled school segregation unconstitutional, and all other Jim Crow laws the same by association. With this decision came the rapid dismantling of the laws that were enacted. In addition, this added much-needed momentum to the early and the later civil rights movements, allowing them to use the Supreme Court to attack and further undermine the few Jim Crow laws remaining. The movements later found a new ally in President Lyndon Johnson, as he pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which effectively nullified all Jim Crow segregation laws in public places. Commenting on the bill the year after at a Howard University commencement address, he noted that "The voting rights bill will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories. But this victory--as Winston Churchill said of another triumph for freedom--'is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'"11
In many ways, Johnson quoted Churchill quite aptly--even though this was a large victory for the civil rights movement, it was far from over. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, ended discrimination in elections by outlawing literacy tests as a requirement to vote, and the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, passed a year earlier, outlawed the poll tax. By the late 1960's, practically all of the Jim Crow laws had been passed out of existence.
However, the legacy of the laws still remains. The Ku Klux Klan, although markedly less active than it was during the heyday of the Jim Crow laws, still make their presence known from time to time. Other nationalist groups, such as the Black Panthers, strive for violent action against reintegration. Even though the Jim Crow laws are long repealed, the stigma that the laws placed on African-Americans are still present--and racism still deeply rooted, especially in the South. The civil rights movement persists even to this day--and will likely do so for quite some time.
1: Bean, Annemarie, McNamara, Brooks, Hatch, James V. ''Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth Century Blackface Ministrelsy.'' Wesleyan University Press, 1996. 69.
2: Barber, Michael. "Jump Jim Crow--Version 5." 25 Oct. 2002. Retrieved 27 Apr. 2007 <http://www.bluegrassmessengers.com/master/jimcrow5.html>
3: "Jim Crow Image Gallery." Picture at <http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/images/gallery/> Accessed 27 Apr. 2007.
4: "Constitution of the United States." NARA--The National Archives Experience. The National Archives. Accessed 27 Apr. 2007 <http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#15.>
5: Tourgee, Albion W. "Letter on Ku Klux Klan Activities." ''The Power of Words: Documents in American History.'' Volume 2. Ed. T.H. Breen. New York: Longman, 1996. 16-20.
6: "Jim Crow Image Gallery." Picture at <http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/images/gallery/> Accessed 27 Apr. 2007.
7: Foner, Eric. ''Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction.'' 1st Ed. New York: Random House, 2005. p. 214.
8: Cozzens, Lisa. "After the Civil War--Plessy v. Ferguson." 17 Sep. 1999. Retrieved 27 Apr. 2007 <http://www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/post-civilwar/plessy.html>
9: "Jim Crow Laws." Martin Luther King National Historic Site. 5 Jan. 1998. Retrieved 28 Apr. 2007 <http://www.nps.gov/malu/documents/jim_crow_laws.htm>
10: "Brown v. Board of Education." Retrieved 28 Apr. 2007. <http://laws.findlaw.com/us/347/483.html>
11: Johnson, Lyndon B. "Commencement Address at Howard University." The Power of Words: Documents in American History. Volume 2. Ed. T.H. Breen. New York: Longman, 1996. 229.