Jim Crow Laws and African Americans


The term Jim Crow traces its origin to 1830s white minstrel entertainer by the name Daddy Rice, who smeared his face with charcoal to represent an African American and performed a song that portrayed the African American as a stupid person. This performance made the Jim Crow character one of the many insulting images that were popularly used by whites to signify black inferiority in American society. From then onwards, Jim Crow became a term used to refer to various laws and practices that the whites used to justify racial segregation, especially in late 19th century America. Although the Jim Crow system has popularly been used to refer to all types of segregation, the term has mainly been used in reference to widespread discrimination against blacks in America from around 1880 until the 1960s when the civil rights movement pushed for the abolition of the system. Southern Democrats created the Jim Crow system out of bitterness because they were unable to for being unable to restore slavery back after it had been abolished. The Jim Crow system replaced slavery as the new system of discrimination against the blacks. Through Jim Crow, segregation was ordered in facilities such as public transport, hospitals, schools, asylums and cemeteries. Jim Crow laws affected African Americans in every area of their lives varying from healthcare to education; treatment in restaurants and stores; as well as a legal representation of the black community. ‘Whites only’ signs became a common feature in parks, restaurants and on fountains. This kind of discriminative treatment spread even to military institutions where African Americans were denied the same treatment as their white counterparts. 1

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Racism continued to be part of American society and the social, economic, and political existence of blacks could for a long time be determined through these laws.

The laws that were used to determine African American life through the Jim Crow system were not a new thing in America but in reality, they were a continuation of very many years in American history when racial separation had become officially approved. A set of segregation laws referred to as Black Codes were in use in the Southern States soon after the American Civil War, but unlike these earlier laws which always came and went, Jim Crow Laws stayed around for quite some time and their effects were felt for several decades later.2 The system of slavery was abolished during the reconstruction and African Americans did actually enjoy some of the rights defined under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments but the pleasure was quite short-lived. The whites especially in the South were not ready to share their social, economic, or political status with the freed slaves. As a result, the Southerners gradually adapted various laws and practices that would be used to remind African Americans about they were second-class citizens in American society. The 1865 Thirteenth Amendment completely abolished slavery, but the whites were determined to maintain their superior position by ensuring that blacks did not receive equal opportunities or treatment. Racist politicians in the North and South used their powerful influence to ensure that the change brought about by the Amendments would not last for long.3 Whites believed that the Negro could not be absorbed into white society whether politically or socially and that he was limited to his position. One way of limiting the Negro was through the segregation system which by 1860 had received the backing of legal as well as extra-legal codes that governed Negro life in all the Free states. Through segregation, Negroes were separated from the whites in every area of their lives and Jim Crow became the simple term used to refer to the widespread system of racial separation in North America especially in the South.4

Jim Crow Laws supported racial separation in American Public facilities such as businesses, schools, rest-rooms, railway stations, parks, and entertainment premises. The laws were somehow different in all states but were mostly practiced in the Southern states than in the north. To make sure that these laws were followed, whites often used violence against the blacks, harshly punishing those who opposed the Jim Crow system. Throughout the Jim Crow era that stretched out for over 70 years, violence became a common characteristic of day-to-day life, especially in the American south. As early as the 1830s, free black slaves could not rent cabins on steamboats, and they had to stay in the open even during stormy weather. The Southern white society rejected all blacks without considering their economic or social status and it was quite rare to find rich blacks living in white neighborhoods as was common in the North. Among the first Jim Crow Laws were those enforcing racial separation in rail transport and the colored-only railroad cars in the South acquired the name ‘Jim Crow Cars’. These cars were often very overcrowded, too hot and stuffy and poorly lit. Passengers very often shared the limited space with farm animals and once in a while, drunken white males would pass through the cars abusing the black occupants. Some well off Blacks would pay for first-class tickets on trains but were forced to sit in the inferior, overcrowded and generally filthy second-class coaches.5

Not all the Jim Crow Laws were specifically made to refer to racial issues but many of them were clearly drawn along racial lines and reading them makes one wonder what life was like for African Americans living in the US between the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. All forms of marriages between Negroes and whites were forbidden. Black barbers could not serve white girls or women and those supporting marriage between different races or social equality through the print media were threatened with very harsh fines. Black and white children attended separate schools and in the few cases where both attended the same schools; they had to learn in separate rooms. All public accommodations had separate facilities and separate entrances for black and white users. Some white educators and business owners who hated racial segregation would often be threatened with tough fines if they failed to follow the restrictions. Contrary to popular belief, Jim Crow Laws were designed not only to enforce racial separation but also to make African Americans so much afraid that they would always accept and never question their second-class position in American society.6

The U.S Supreme Court’s ruling in the Plessey V Ferguson suit badly affected African Americans. The southern States immediately moved in to pass more Jim Crow Laws and racial separation especially in the American South became a way of life. After the ruling, laws supporting this separation quickly spread throughout the south which varied from civil and human rights that created separate toilets and drinking fountains to those that promoted the use of separate Bibles by white and black witnesses in the courts. Under the Jim Crow Laws, blacks were also denied the right to vote through such laws as grandfather clauses and a poll tax. In the military, Jim Crow Laws were used to determine the terms under which African Americans would be recruited, receive housing, training and also the limited opportunities that were availed to them. African Americans mainly held subordinate positions. Segregation determined the lives of African American life were therefore determined by racial separation beginning from birth to death. Racial separation was common in almost all public facilities including cemeteries in the few shared facilities; blacks had to stand aside until all whites had been served. 7

Causing fear among the blacks was the strongest weapon used by whites to impose the Jim Crow Laws and those African Americans who made an attempt to press for their rights were very often violently beaten back. Most of the blacks were also too poor to afford any legal protection while juries were not sympathetic to their desperate position either. Blacks were also afraid of physical revenge that sometimes resulted in lynching. There were no organizations like NAACP by then that would push for black rights; the South had very few practicing black lawyers; and the white lawyers were unwilling to take up cases involving blacks. Politicians were also unwilling to resist the proposed expansions of the Jim Crow system because they feared that this would make their opponents criticize them for not showing commitment to white supremacy. Silence therefore became a weapon through which they would secure their political positions and Southerners took advantage of this environment to enforce laws first and later tested how well these laws were accepted within the judicial system. Social and legal schemes were established during the Jim Crow era that effectively ignored or undermined the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments which had been passed with the purpose of securing political rights and the personal freedom of African Americans.8

White supremacy and racial oppression very often led to the worst incidents of violence in the history of America. Although violence was always present, there are times when it became very serious in several places. In 1898 for example, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wilmington experienced race riots of very high proportion in which many blacks were killed and black women were raped by white men. This tension led to the massive migration of blacks from the South to other places like Kansas, Phoenix, Nickodemus and Muskegee. Jim Crow and white supremacy continued way into the mid 20th century. Segregation of colored students continued especially in the American West and South, Violence against the blacks often erupted and lynching was still a common phenomenon. In the 1943 Texas riot, for example, over 50 people received injuries, businesses were looted and others set ablaze, and two blacks were lynched. Police brutality became an issue to be reckoned with during this era. White-dominated media also the situation worse by covering the disagreements leading to more tension and violence. Police brutality against the African Americans became the basis of the distrust that minorities in America have continued to have against law enforcement officers.9

Although Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation had some positive effects on African Americans, the Jim Crow system remained effective in the South throughout the Great Depression and even beyond. In the 1950s however, two new developments took place that shook the Jim Crow System to its very foundations. The 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial separation in schools and banned the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine; and the 1955 murder of Elmett Till. These two events led to the beginning of the modern civil rights movement with groups rising in both North and South to oppose discrimination in education, housing and employment. For the period between the 14ht Amendment on July 9, 1868 and the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling on May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court had continually interpreted the promise of equal protection provided in the Amendment to be in perfect harmony with the Jim Crow system. The move to abolish Jim Crow Laws did not however begin with the Supreme Courts’ ruling but had been a long-running social project, especially among the African Americans. But the Court’s decision against separation in schools in Virginia, Kansa, Delaware, and South Carolina created a watershed effect in the public and the sowed seed for the progressive erosion of Jim Crow.10

Segregation laws provoked blacks to engage in resistance either individually or on collective levels. One famous person who put up such resistance is Fredrick Douglas who often refused to give up his seat in public vehicles and had to be forcefully removed by whites. At one time, he put up so much resistance that his seat broke off from its very foundation. Several other blacks continued to resist Jim Crow laws in public transport and all efforts by the railroad companies and black politicians to resist these laws in order to avoid this tension was not effective. Collective resistance was carried out through sit-ins, bus boycotts, marches and demonstrations. Whites responded to these demonstrations by causing more violence on the participants. Police officers often gassed, beat and loosed their dogs upon the protestors and many African Americans, both men and women lost their lives through the struggle. Whites however continued to enjoy better facilities like hospitals, schools and textbooks while even those blacks who had equally made achievements that were similar or almost equal to those of their white counterparts continued to suffer limited freedom, opportunities and privileges.11

The Civil Rights Movement was the most effective form of resistance because, after a series of boycotts and court cases through the NAACP, a great effort led to the elimination of segregation on the Montgomery buses. After further protests by the movement, the 1957 Civil Rights Act was made into law, followed a few years later by the 1964 Civil Rights Act through which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill that completely abolished Jim Crow Laws across the American nation. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent 1965 Voting Rights Act were a big blow to racial segregation. Through the Civil Rights Act, racial separation in all public facilities was lawfully removed and discrimination in employment based on color, race, national origin, religion and gender was outlawed. The Voting Rights Act extended equal voting rights to all American citizens and also abolished literacy tests used in voting. President Lyndon B. Johnson also invested in social welfare programs whose purpose was to provide new opportunities for the poor.12

By the time Martin Luther King died in April of 1968, the civil rights movement was however badly divided and weakened as well. Black voter registration was still low compared to the whites and in some states like Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia, separation in public places was still going on. However, the abolition of Jim Crow had resulted in the registration of more black voters, integration of more schools and transport systems, more African Americans in better careers, and the disappearance of racial separation in public places except for a few resistant areas deep in the South. Through the Black Power Movement, the principle of equal opportunity and rights had become an integral part of the lives of most Americans.13


Between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries, Jim Crow had changed from simply being a set of legal maneuvers in American society and become the society’s way of life and although the Jim Crow Laws were eventually abolished, the system still continued to be practiced in certain white communities. Jim Crow Laws created a state of hatred and racial tension that would affect the American nation for decades after the abolition of Jim Crow. Laws could be changed but it proved a very tiresome and near-impossible task to change the attitudes of the people that had created and enforced these laws, as well as that of those that had been negatively affected by them.14


  1. Anderson, Wayne. Fighting Racial Discrimination: Treating All Americans Fairly Under the Law. New York: Rosen Classroom, 2006.
  2. Duncan, Melba J. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to African American History. New York: Alpha Books, 2003.
  3. Herrick, John M and Stuart Paul H. Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America. SAGE, 2005.
  4. Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2004.
  5. Raskin, Jamin B. Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court versus the American People. London, UK: Routledge, 2004.
  6. Rucker, Walter C. and Upton James N. Encyclopedia of American Race Riots. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.
  7. Spiller, John, Clancey Tim and Young Stephen. The United States, 1763-2001. London, UK: Routledge, 2001.
  8. Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  9. Whitaker, Matthew C. Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. Lincoln, NA: Nebraska Press, 2007.
  10. Woodward, Comer Vann and McFeely William S. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University US, 2001.


  1. Jonathan Sutherland, African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 229-230; Walter C. Rucker and James N. Upton, Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), 204, 207
  2. Melba J. Duncan, The complete idiot’s guide to African American History, (New York: Alpha Books, 2003), 80
  3. Ibid 80-81; Jonathan 230
  4.  Comer Vann Woodward and William S. McFeely, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, (New York: Oxford University Press US, 2001), 17-18; Melba 82
  5. Walter 308-309
  6. Melba 78-79, 82-83
  7. 7 John Middlemist Herrick and Paul H. Stuart, Encyclopedia of Social Welfare history in North America, (Seminole, FL: SAGE, 2005), 16-17, 349; Wayne Anderson, Fighting Racial Discrimination: Treating All Americans Fairly Under the Law, (New York: Rosen Classroom, 2006), 9; Jonathan 230
  8. Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to civil rights: the Supreme Court and the struggle for racial equality, (New York: Oxford University Press US, 2004), 48-49
  9. Matthew C. Whitaker, Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, (Lincoln, NA: Nebraska Press, 2007), 28, 81
  10. Jamin B. Raskin, Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court versus the America People, (London. UK: Routledge, 2004), 154-157
  11. Walter 309-312
  12. Walter 312; John and Paul 17
  13. John Spiller, Tim Clancey and Stephen Young, The United States, 1763-2001, (London, UK: Routledge, 2001), 253
  14. Melba 85
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