Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Jim Crow law

In the United States, the so-called Jim Crow laws (or Black Codes) were made to enforce racial segregation, and included laws that would prevent African-Americans from doing things that a "white" person could do. For instance, Jim Crow laws regulated separate use of water fountains and separate seating sections on public transport. Jim Crow laws varied between communities and states.

The first Jim Crow law was passed in 1723, when blacks in the state of Virginia were stripped of the right to vote and own property. The later passage of Black Codes, which attempted to return freed slave to bondage in fact, rather than name, by Southern legislatures immediately after the American Civil War led to the policy of Reconstruction, in which the federal government intervened to protect the rights conferred on black Americans by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875.

Reconstruction ended, however, in 1877. In its aftermath the resurgent white elites, who referred to themselves as redeemers, undid many of the civil rights gains that black Americans had made during Reconstruction, passing laws that mandated discrimination by both local governments and by private citizens. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled 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, 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.

The Supreme Court began to overturn Jim Crow laws on constitutional grounds in the 20th century. The Supreme Court ruled in Guinn v. United States 238 US 347 (1915) that an Oklahoma law that denied the right to vote to some citizens was unconstitutional. (Nonetheless, the majority of African Americans were unable to vote in most states in the Deep South of the USA until the 1950s or 1960s.) In Buchanan v. Warley 245 US 60 (1917), the Court held that a Kentucky law could not require residential segregation. The court outlawed the white primary in Smith v. Allwright 321 US 649 (1944), and in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 (1954) the Court ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools. These decisions, 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), 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 were unconstitutional, on the ground that they represented state-sponsored discrimination in that they were only effective if the courts enforced them.

The Supreme Court was unwilling, however, to attack other forms of 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.

However, in 1964 that Congress invoked the Commerce clause to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, i.e., privately owned restaurants, hotels and stores, and in private schools and workplaces, that Congress attacked the parallel system of private Jim Crow practices. This use of the Commerce clause was upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. US 379 US 241 (1964).

As attitudes turned against segregation in the Federal courts after World War II, the segregationist white governments of many of the states of the South East countered with even more numerous and strict segregation laws on the local level until the start of the 1960s. The modern civil rights movement is often considered to have been sparked by an act of civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. This led to a series of legislation and court decisions in which Jim Crow laws were repealed or annulled.

The term Jim Crow comes from the minstrel show song "Jump Jim Crow" written in 1828 by Thomas D. Rice, a white man, the originator of blackface performance. The song and blackface itself were an immediate hit. "Jim Crow" became a standard character in Minstrel shows, being a caricature of a shabbily dressed rural black; "Jim Crow" was often paired with the character "Zip Coon", a flamboyantly dressed urban black. By 1837, Jim Crow was being used to refer to racial segregation.

In conjunction with the laws there was also Jim Crow etiquette: a set of unwritten rules governing how blacks and whites should interact. Breaking of this code could result in a lynching (1878-1898 saw 10,000 lynchings) or other forms of sadistic murder. The murders of Sam Hose and Emmet Till, more than fifty years apart, serve as examples.

See also apartheid.