Jim Crow

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The term Jim Crow comes from the minstrel show song "Jump Jim Crow" written in 1828 and performed by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, a white English migrant to the U.S. and the first popularizer of blackface performance. The song and blackface itself were an immediate hit. A caricature of a shabbily dressed rural black, "Jim Crow" became a standard character in minstrel shows. He was often paired with "Zip Coon," a flamboyantly dressed urban black who associated more with white culture. By 1837, Jim Crow was being used to refer to racial segregation in Vermont.

The term became a synonym for a system of racial discrimination, from the 1880s to 1964 in which African Americans were segregated in public schools and public places, and had little or no political power or civil rights. It was a low point in Black history after the euphoria of Reconstruction. School segregation was officially abolished by the Supreme Court in the Brown decision of 1954, which took from 1 to 20 years to implement.[1] Segregation in public places was abolished overnight by the Civil Rights law of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the exclusion of blacks from voting in the South.

De Jure segregation

"De jure" or legal segregation took place when state laws required it, in the South and some border states.[2] These laws mandated 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 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 Democrats held the White House, 1913-21.

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, and it ended in practice in the 1970s. The court ruling did not stop de facto or informal school segregation, which continued in large cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson, building a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans, pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which immediately annulled Jim Crow laws that segregated restaurants, hotels and theatres; these facilities (with rare exceptions) immediately dropped racial segregation. The Voting Rights Act ended discrimination in voting for all federal, state and local elections.


In the first stage of "Presidential Reconstruction," 1965-66 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, by 1870, passed the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, 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 conservatives and 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, 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—although, even without legal segregation, the desire of the white majority to use the frequently inferior facilities set aside for black use was admittedly limited.

Voting disfranchisement

Between 1890 and 1920, many state governments prevented most blacks from voting by various techniques, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. (These could be waived for whites by grandfather clauses, until this was found to be unconstitutional in 1915.) It is estimated that of 181,000 African-American males of voting age in Alabama (U.S. state) in 1900, only 3,000 were registered to vote.


The following examples of segregation are excerpts from examples of Jim Crow laws shown on the National Park Service website.

The examples include anti-miscegenation laws; though sometimes counted among the "Jim Crow laws" of the South, those laws had also existed outside the South for many years. Anti-miscegenation laws were not repealed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but were declared unconstitutional in the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia.

An African American drinks out of a segregated water cooler designated for "colored" patrons in 1939 at a streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City


  • "All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races."


  • Various laws from 1884 to 1947 prohibited marriage or sexual relations between whites and blacks or mulattoes, providing for specific fines and imprisonment of up to three years.[3]
  • Various laws from 1891 to 1959 segregated rail travel, streetcars, buses, all public carriers, race tracks, gaming establishments, polling places, washrooms in mines, tuberculosis hospitals, public schools and teachers' colleges.
  • A poll tax was first imposed in the 1890s.


  • "All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited."
  • "Any Negro man and white woman, or any white man and Negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars."
  • "The schools for white children and the schools for Negro children shall be conducted separately."


  • "All persons licensed to conduct a restaurant, shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license."
  • "It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race."


  • "Any person who shall rent any part of any such building to a Negro person or a Negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family, or vice versa when the building is in occupancy by a Negro person or Negro family, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five ($25.00) nor more than one hundred ($100.00) dollars or be imprisoned not less than 10, or more than 60 days, or both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court."


  • "Any person...who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and Negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both."

North Carolina

  • "Books shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them. "
  • "The state librarian is directed to fit up and maintain a separate place for the use of the colored people who may come to the library for the purpose of reading books or periodicals."


  • Twenty-seven Jim Crow laws were passed in the Lone Star state from 1866 to 1958. Some examples include:
  • 1925: Required racially segregated schools.
  • 1950: Separate facilities required for white and black citizens in state parks
  • 1953: Public carriers to be segregated
  • 1958: No child compelled to attend schools that are racially mixed. No desegregation unless approved by election. Governor may close schools where troops used on federal authority.


  • "Every person...operating...any public hall, theater, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race and shall set apart and designate...certain seats therein to be occupied by white persons and a portion thereof , or certain seats therein, to be occupied by colored persons.
  • "The conductors or managers on all such railroads shall have power, and are hereby required, to assign to each white or colored passenger his or her respective car, coach or compartment. If the passenger fails to disclose his race, the conductor and managers, acting in good faith, shall be the sole judges of his race.

South Carolina

  • "No persons, firms, or corporations, who or which furnish meals to passengers at station restaurants or station eating houses, in times limited by common carriers of said passengers, shall furnish said meals to white and colored passengers in the same room, or at the same table, or at the same counter."
  • "It shall be unlawful for any parent, relative, or other white person in this State, having the control or custody of any white child, by right of guardianship, natural or acquired, or otherwise, to dispose of, give or surrender such white child permanently into the custody, control, maintenance, or support, of a negro."

Attacking Jim Crow

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, legislation introduced by Charles Sumner and Benjamin F. Butler in 1870, and passed March 1, 1875. It guaranteed 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.

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.

When black soldiers returning from World War II refused to put up with the second class citizenship of segregation, 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. In 1954, the court unanimously overturned the 1896 Plessy decision in its ruling; Thurgood Marshall later became the first black Supreme Court Justice.


The Supreme Court of the United States held in the Civil Rights Cases 109 US 3 (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the power to outlaw private discrimination, and then held in Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 (1896) that Jim Crow laws were constitutional as long as they allowed for "separate but equal" facilities. In the years that followed, the court made this "separate but equal" requirement a hollow phrase by approving discrimination even in the face of evidence of profound inequalities in practice.

In 1902, Reverend Thomas Dixon, a white Southern anti-Reconstructionist, published the novel The Leopard's Spots, which fanned racial animosity.[4]

Jim Crow laws enabled the "Solid South" -- that is the region voted for (almost) all Democratic candidates, and was a powerful bloc in presidential elections. The Democrats quickly 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.

The Jim Crow laws were a major factor in the Great Migration during the early part of the 20th century, because opportunities were so limited in the South that African Americans moved in great numbers to northern cities to seek a better life.

While African-American entertainers, musicians, and literary figures had broken into the white world of American art and culture after 1890, African-American athletes found obstacles confronting them at every turn. 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.

Twentieth century

In the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to overturn 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. It was not until 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 that the court held that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, and outlawing Jim Crow in other areas of society as well. This landmark case consisted of complaints filed in the states of Delaware (Gebhart v. Belton); South Carolina (Briggs v. Elliot); Virginia (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County); and Washington, D.C. (Bolling v. Sharpe). These decisions[5], slowly dismantled the state-sponsored segregation imposed by Jim Crow laws.

In addition to Jim Crow laws, in which the state compelled segregation of the races, businesses, political parties, unions and other private parties created their own Jim Crow arrangements, barring blacks from buying homes in certain neighborhoods, from shopping or working in certain stores, from working at certain trades, etc. The Supreme Court outlawed some forms of 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 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. 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 mainline Protestant churches, major 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.


  1. Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (2006)
  2. "De facto" segregation refers to the practice of segregation, especially in Northern cities, that was in effect by custom and not by law.
  3. The History of Jim Crow—Inside the South
  4. See [1]
  5. along with other cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents 339 US 637 (1950), NAACP v. Alabama 357 US 449 (1958), and Boynton v. Virginia 364 US 454 (1960)