A Guide to Jim Crow Laws

The term “Jim Crow” came about in 1832 as the title of a song and dance by a white minstrel performer mimicking the songs of a slave named Jim Crow. The song itself mocked the mannerisms of African-American slaves, and the term became synonymous with the “Negro.” Eventually, the name would be used to describe anti-black sentiment and laws aimed at curbing the rights of black people after the Civil War.

Jim Crow laws effectively separated all aspects of daily life and social interaction between white people and African-Americans. Southern states failed to come to terms with the passing of the 13th Amendment, which gave slaves their freedom, and the 14th Amendment, which gave them equal rights.

The resentment of state leaders led to laws that would discredit and disadvantage African-Americans by restricting their rights and their role in society. Specifically, the South saw several measures aimed at reducing black voter participation. These included literacy tests and poll taxes, both of which were insurmountable barriers for many former slaves.

Public facilities also became segregated under the law. These included public schools, transportation, restaurants, restrooms, and drinking fountains. Even the U.S. military segregated its troops, and initially, black soldiers were offered only menial roles. Under the segregation laws, interracial marriage was also banned, and those with even only a fraction of African-American descent were discriminated against. These segregation laws were reinforced by the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which said that separating public facilities did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment if they were equal in nature.

Up until the 1950s, lynchings targeting African-Americans who defied Jim Crow restrictions happened repeatedly. One such incident occurred in 1946, when a group of white men beat and blinded a black World War II veteran in uniform. This launched widespread protests and marches calling for an end to Jim Crow laws and the codification of equal rights into law.

In 1954, the legal defense committee of the NAACP won the first major victory in the fight for civil rights. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Specifically, they stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. This ruling successfully overturned the Plessy decision, much to the dismay of the South.

A year later, the movement inspired a new symbol of resistance to ongoing discrimination. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to leave her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The incident inspired the Montgomery bus boycott, which resulted in the desegregation of privately run buses. The use of civil disobedience as a method of effecting change would continue through larger protests led by one of the most famous proponents of civil liberties, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The protests reached their culmination when in 1963, King Jr. led 200,000 demonstrators to the Lincoln Memorial. King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organized disenfranchised African-Americans in the fight for civil rights. One of the largest victories in their fight was their march in Birmingham, Alabama. King called on protesters to provoke governor Bull Connor to use violence, knowing that the events would be broadcast to the American population. When Connor gave in to the taunts, his brutality helped reinforce the views of the president that change was necessary. President John F. Kennedy announced a civil rights bill that would prohibit segregation of public places and would punish those institutions that refused to comply. Three months after King led his march to the Lincoln Memorial and gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Kennedy was assassinated.

The civil rights bill, however, became law in 1964 after Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency. The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in all states, effectively abolishing Jim Crow laws. This was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed barriers to voting.

For further information on Jim Crow laws and the history of segregation, consult the following resources: