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Ask Civics 101: What Were Jim Crow Laws?

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SARA PLOURDE
/
NHPR

This week, one of our listeners asks: What were Jim Crow laws? How and when were they enacted?

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Submit it here!

Jim Crow laws were a system of local and state laws (most in the South) that legalized racial segregation in the United States from 1877 through the mid-1960s. There were laws mandating segregation in nearly every aspect of life from schools, parks, and restaurants to drinking fountains, theaters, and busses. Signs saying "whites only" or "colored" provided a constant reminder of the racial order imposed by Jim Crow. It was, as historian Douglas Blackmon has called it, "slavery by another name."

Although the laws came after the Civil War, the term "Jim Crow" predated the Civil War. It seems to have originated in minstrel shows in the 1820s, becoming so well known that by the 1830s, "Jim Crow" was being used as a collective racial epithet against Black Americans.

The roots of Jim Crow laws go back to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865. Following the amendment, many places throughout the south enacted "Black Codes" that dictated where and when formerly enslaved people could work, creating a system of servitude for Black Americans that severely limited their freedom.  

Things grew arguably worse for Black Americans in 1877 when federal troops withdrew from the South, marking the end of the Reconstruction Era. Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877, aimed to reintegrate and reorganize the former Confederate states after the Civil War and define how white and Black people could live together in a non-slave society. The South, however, did not welcome this imposition. So without the federal government’s presence, Jim Crow laws were passed almost immediately, and racial segregation took further hold in southern and border states.

These laws were challenged in court. Most infamously in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which challenged the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring separate railway cars for white and black people. The Supreme Court ruled that state-imposed racial segregation didn’t violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted equal citizenship and equal protection of the law to the formerly enslaved, as long as the separate services were of equal quality. This became known as the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Though the Court declared that separate facilities and services had to be of equal quality, the reality was that facilities and services for Black Americans were almost always inferior to those available to whites, if they existed at all. Black Americans were also systematically prevented from voting through tools like literacy tests and poll taxes. 

Jim Crow laws were undergirded by violence. Violations of Jim Crow could result in beatings and often death. Black Americans had little legal recourse in an all-white criminal justice system. Lynchings were the most extreme form of violent social control. Between 1882 and 1968, more than 3000 Black men and women were lynched, many by mobs.

Upheld by violence and discriminatory law enforcement, Jim Crow laws dominated life in the South until the 1960s when a series of court decisions, new laws, and the Civil Rights Movement did away with the laws. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state-imposed racial segregation in public education violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1964, the 24th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, abolishing the use of poll taxes. That same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed public discrimination based on race and effectively rendered Jim Crow laws illegal. A year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned discriminatory voting laws and upheld the voting rights of Black Americans. Then, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia (1967) that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Although the laws have disappeared, the legacy of Jim Crow still lingers in the United States. 

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