USA History: The History of the Jim Crow Laws


Begun in 1875, the Jim Crow Laws were the medium through which states and the federal government approved the concept of “separate but equal” public facilities for black and white citizens. These laws created a culture in which black and whites lived almost entirely detached lives from each other. While in theory these laws required black facilities to be equal to white facilities, they very rarely were, resulting in blacks often being forced to use inferior facilities or not being offered facilities at all. Jim Crow Laws remained in effect until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Name Origins

The name “Jim Crow Laws” derived from a comic and sketch show character played by T.D. Rice in 1904. The name is actually from a song titled “Jump Jim Crow” in which Rice painted his face black. The song’s theme was derogatory towards blacks. There are indications that the name was used prior to 1904, but Rice’s performance is the first documented use of the term.

History of the Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow Laws began to appear after the Civil War when blacks and whites struggled to coexist in a nation in which blacks were no longer slaves. The Laws are not a unified set of rules, but rather refer to legislation by states and the federal government permitting separate facilities for blacks. Overall, the concept of these laws was to maintain blacks as inferior citizens and prevent the black culture from mingling with white. These laws often took the form of requiring blacks to travel in different train cars, vote at different facilities and use separate bathrooms and drinking fountains. In federal offices black and white workers were separated.

Attempts at Breaking Jim Crow

The Jim Crow Laws were attempted to be changed as early as 1875 by the introduction of the first Civil Rights Act. This Act established rights for every individual regardless of race, background, or previous enslavement. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Act unconstitutional by stating that it illegally attempted to control private individuals and businesses. In Louisiana in 1892, a group of white and black citizens attempted to challenge a local law requiring blacks to sit in a different train car from whites. This challenge resulted in the 1896 Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Ferguson in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal”.

World War II Era

Black soldiers served in World War II, but rarely on the front lines and, even then, most often were separated from white soldiers. Most black soldiers were assigned to low-level jobs, such as prisoner guarding or cooks. During the wear, racism extended so far as to prevent blacks from driving tanks because it was believed they did not have the proper reflexes for the job. Only when desperate for replacements, such as in crisis times like the Battle of the Bulge, did black soldiers actually fight.

The End of the Jim Crow Laws

Initial attacks against Jim Crow Laws began following World War II, after which black soldiers believed themselves entitled to equal treatment due to their military service. The first step against the laws was the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. Subsequently, Court rulings ended segregation on public transportation and, eventually, in public schools through the argument that such rules violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Private attempts for segregation, such as placing restrictions on the transferability of property deeds, were also held unconstitutional. The Jim Crow Laws were officially terminated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Resources

To learn more about the establishment and demise of Jim Crow Laws visit the sites below.

  • Plessy v. Ferguson: The case establishing the constitutionality of “separate but equal”.
  • Brown v. Board: Organization dedicated to the case officially desegregating schools. Case opinion can be found here.
  • Jim Crow Laws: University of Dayton School of Law’s listing of typical Jim Crow Laws. 
  • Black WWII Museum: Organization dedicated to preserving the history of black soldiers in WWII. 
  • What Was Jim Crow: Information on the Jim Crow Laws including a brief history as well as descriptions of some of the Jim Crow etiquette norms.