Jim Crow laws

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Segregated drinking fountains.
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There is a separation of coloured people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of coloured people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.
Albert Einstein, 1946[1]
As black Americans living in a small Kentucky town, the railroad tracks were a daily reminder of our marginality. Across those tracks were paved streets, stores we could not enter, restaurants we could not eat in, and people we could not look directly in the face. Across those tracks was a world we could work in as maids, as janitors, as prostitutes, as long as it was in a service capacity. We could enter that world but we could not live there. We had always to return to the margin, to cross the tracks, to shacks and abandoned houses on the edge of town. There were laws to ensure our return. To not return was to risk being punished.
—Gloria Jean Watkins, African-American author and university professor.[2]

The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965, a period in American history known as the Jim Crow era. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans. They also imposed legal barriers on who private businesses were allowed to serve,[3] prohibiting black-owned barber shops from serving white clients whether the whites wanted it or not,[4] and requiring apartment buildings to designate themselves black or white,[5] or prohibiting interracial athletic events even if entirely financed and organized by a private party.[6] This led to treatment and accommodations that were usually inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational, and social disadvantages.[7] Jim Crow laws were particularly popular in the South, where southern hospitality could only be enjoyed if one followed the "whites only" or "colored only" signs.

The Jim Crow era only began to end in 1954, when the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in state-sponsored public schools was illegal in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Court under Chief Justice Earl WarrenWikipedia continued to rule against other instances of racial segregation. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights MovementWikipedia saw activists and black leaders lead a sustained nonviolent struggle against segregation through tactics like sit-ins, boycotts, and protests.[8] The racist laws were finally overruled by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Tragically, the legacy of racial segregation still haunts the United States. Uneven enforcement of civil rights measures and deep-seated cultural biases prevented full desegregation, leading to a situation where housing in the US is still about as segregated as it was before the Civil Rights Act,[note 1] with black-majority areas almost universally being poorer than white areas.[9] Without desegregating neighborhoods and addressing long-standing economic inequality, black Americans are and will continue to be suffering under the remnants of Jim Crow.[10] In other words, the long war drags on.

Origin of the term[edit]

Thomas Rice performing as "Jim Crow".
'Jumping Jim Crow' and just 'Jim Crow' generally sort of became shorthand—or one shorthand, anyway—for describing African Americans in this country. So much so, that by the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was twenty years later in 1852, one character refers to another as Jim Crow.
—Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.[11]

The name Jim Crow is a blanket term which describes the myriad laws enacted in the United States in order to enforce racial segregation. Even before the laws began in full force, the term "Jim Crow" was generally used as an epithet against black people. The name comes from a song by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who performed it in blackface and found enormous popularity across the US and even in London and Dublin.[12] The Jim Crow persona and song became so popular that it basically founded the genre of racist minstrel entertainment.

Jim Crow and other minstrel characters were intentionally portrayed as lazy and stupid for comedic effect, going a long way in perpetuating racial prejudice across the US.[12] The minstrel shows popularized Jim Crow as a pop culture caricature recognized by much of America's white population. When white Americans referred to blacks as "Jim Crow", it was to reduce blacks to the same buffoonish caricature that Rice and other blackface performers showed on stage.

The image became so ingrained in the national consciousness that it came to describe racist laws simply due to the fact that it was how most whites thought of black people.[11] While Rice died in poverty and was soon forgotten, the name Jim Crow came to define an era of racist oppression.[11]

Enactment and solidification[edit]

The white mob poses after the coup in Wilmington, 1898.
Believing that the Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by an enlightened people; believing that its framers did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin, and believing that those men of the state of North Carolina, who joined in framing the union did not contemplate for their descendants subjection to an inferior race, We the undersigned citizens of the city of Wilmington and county of New Hanover, do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled, by men of African origin.
The White Declaration of Independence, written and announced by the perpetrators of the 1898 Wilmington coup.[13]

White Democratic power[edit]

After Reconstruction ended and President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South, white members of the Democratic Party[note 2] were able to regain their stranglehold on power in the South. Paramilitaries like the White League used murderous violence to destroy local Republican Party organizing and suppress the black vote in order to ensure political victory for the Democrats.[14] In at least one case, there was an outright coup against an elected government when white supremacists employed a Gatling gun and other weapons to destroy the biracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina.[15]

The Democratic politicians who came to power amid this wave of repression called themselves the "Redeemers",Wikipedia making clear their intention to "redeem" the South from its period of post-Civil War progress towards racial equality. They represented the interests of rich white agriculturalists, the same group of people who had led the disastrous uprising of the Confederate States.


Thomas NastWikipedia cartoon lamenting the racist terror inflicted on black Americans.

The Redeemer Democrats quickly set about ensuring their continued power by suppressing black and poor voters. Over about a decade after Reconstruction, black people lost their hard-won right to vote in the South through state governments subverting the US Constitution. White mobs used violence to intimidate black people out of voting, and state governments began to pass laws to impose further restrictions. First there was a literacy test, which most black people were unable to pass since it had been illegal to teach slaves to read.[16] The literacy tests were always administered by white officials who would reject black would-be voters even if they clearly could demonstrate literacy. Grandfather clauses were used in certain places to make sure that the literacy tests didn't impact poor whites by allowing people to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had voted before 1867.[16] Since that applied to almost no black people, it again excluded them from the political process.

With the Democratic stranglehold on politics in the South, anyone who won a Democratic primary would be fairly certain of winning office. With that in mind, the Democratic Party and state officials ensured that their primary elections would only be open to white voters.[17] Additionally, officials would routinely purge voter rolls of black Americans and pass laws disenfranchising former prisoners (of whom many were blacks who had been convicted of trumped-up charges).[16] All told, the Southern Democrats had a depressingly effective system in place to prevent black people from doing anything as simple as voting.

The effects of disenfranchisement made themselves clear in the number of registered voters. In 1896, for instance, Louisiana had 130,334 registered black voters.[18] After the enactment of the state's new voter restrictions, only 1,342 black citizens were able to cast a vote.[18] Similarly, in Virginia, there were over 100,000 registered black voters in 1867, almost half the state's eligible voting population. After 1902, when the state constitution implemented a poll tax and other barriers to voting, the number dropped to 21,000, just 4.7% of all registered voters.[19] By 1940, across the South, a mere 3% of black citizens were registered to vote.[20] Without the right to vote, black people could not hold public office and had no say in how they were taxed or how their schools would be funded or how they would be treated by the police and the courts.

Malign neglect[edit]

Black schoolhouse in Mississippi, 1949.
A typical rural Negro school is at Dine Hollow. It is in a dilapidated building, once whitewashed, standing in a rocky field unfit for cultivation.... As we approach, a nervous, middle-aged woman comes to the door of the school. She greets us in a discouraged voice marked by a speech impediment. Escorted inside, we observe that the broken benches are crowded to three times their normal capacity. Only a few battered books are in sight, and we look in vain for maps or charts. We learn that four grades are assembled here. The weary teacher agrees to permit us to remain while she proceeds with the instruction. She goes to the blackboard and writes an assignment for the first two grades to do while she conducts spelling and word drills for the third and fourth grades. This is the assignment:

"Write your name ten times.

Draw an dog, an cat, an rat, an boot."
—American Council on Education investigation into black schools in the south, late 1930s.[21]

With black people removed from political life, their general quality of living sharply declined thanks to the efforts of white governments. Black schools were neglected and underfunded, with the black students having no choice but to go to them thanks to segregation in education.[22] Blacks could not visit white libraries, and they almost never got any libraries of their own.

Home and children of a black sharecropping family in Arkansas, 1936.

Public education became the African-American's first introduction in the reality of living at the bottom of a segregated society. Their schools taught them only the skills necessary for agricultural or domestic work, a form of neglect which had a cascading effect down the generations.[21] Black teachers had much lower salaries and much less training than their white counterparts, to the point where a study in 1931 found that black teachers in Alabama performed worse on tests than ninth-grade or eighth-grade white students.[21]

Also hindering the education of black Americans was the arduous burden of farm labor. After the end of slavery, white landowners maintained their economic status by finding a new way to force black people back into laboring for no compensation. This time, the system was called sharecropping, where blacks would be coerced by violence or economic necessity into signing abusive contracts that trapped them in cycles of debt and required them to live on the white landlord's property while paying exorbitant rents to do so.[23] White landlords had extensive control over the lives of their tenants and their tenants' families. Black children also usually had to work the fields in these living arrangements at expense to their education, and black children in the South attended school just 15 or 20 weeks each year as found by a study in the 1930s.[21]

Black children who graduated their miserable grade schools had few or no opportunities to attend high school. In 1932, only 14% of black children between 15 and 19 years old were enrolled in public high schools in the South.[21] What high schools existed for them had few resources and rarely taught science or music or art.

Separate but "equal"[edit]

1904 caricature of segregated railroads. It was obvious even then that separate was not equal.

Plessy v. Ferguson[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Plessy v. Ferguson

Jim Crow came to rest upon the doctrine/justification of "separate but equal", which became the founding myth of the entire American system of segregation. The legal argument asserted that racial segregation did not necessarily violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the segregated facilities would be kept to an equal standard. As seen above, this was complete bullshit, and it was to be tested before the United States Supreme Court in 1890.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law mandating that railroads provide "equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races."[24] Black Americans in the city of New Orleans were outraged, and a mixed-race man named Homer Plessy promptly got himself arrested for refusing to comply when ordered to move to the colored cabin of a passenger train.[25] Plessy pleaded "not guilty" during legal proceedings on the basis that the law was unconstitutional, and the issue made its way to the Supreme Court in 1896 (law is slow). Cue one of the darkest moments in American history.

Plessy's attorneys argued that the segregation law violated the Fourteenth Amendment's provision guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Unfortunately, a majority of the Supreme Court decided that segregation did not violate the Equal Protection Law because it theoretically provided for equal services for both races despite them being separate.[26] Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissent, making the obvious argument that segregation was a fundamental violation of civil rights and thus inherently violated the Fourteenth Amendment.[26] Despite Harlan's powerful and correct dissent, the Court's decision provided constitutional cover for segregation from the very top of the American judicial system.

It gets worse[edit]

A charming sign in Detroit, Michigan in 1942.

The Great Migration, or how Jim Crow went North[edit]

By the early 1900s, the South had become unlivable to millions of its black citizens. Sharecropping, economic inequality, and ongoing racist oppression forced black Americans out of the South, while reports of abundant industrial job openings in the North created the promise of a better future.[27] This began a massive wave of internal migration among African-Americans who hoped to live in at least a slightly less shitty part of the country. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York City absorbed millions of black migrants, permanently shifting their demographics. Do you see where this story is going yet?

Black Americans moving to the northern US were instantly met with a wave of racist backlash that had previously been hidden by the fact that there just weren't that many black people up there. Tensions rapidly escalated between white industrial workers and the black people who were hired alongside them, exploding in 1917 in the horrifying East St. Louis riots that left 6,000 black people homeless and around 250 black people murdered.[28] Race riots swept further across northern cities, and black activists responded by protesting amid worsening conditions.[29] They also faced serious employment discrimination, but this luckily didn't prevent a major drop in black poverty as a result of the move.[30]

In the Midwest and Western states, whites responded by declaring "sundown towns", a colloquial name for groups of all-white communities which used threats and signage to keep blacks from settling there.[31] Monuments to the Confederacy were erected across the nation, even in strongly pro-Union states, as a thinly-veiled threat to black migrants.[32] Racist violence became just as common as it had been in the South, perhaps even worse. Thus, while black Americans had moved north, Jim Crow moved with them.

Then came Woodrow Wilson[edit]

Quote from President Wilson shown in Birth of a Nation.
See the main article on this topic: Woodrow Wilson

In 1912, things got even worse for black Americans when Woodrow Wilson was elected president. The first southern president since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson quickly turned the federal government into a weapon against black Americans, a massive betrayal since black people had always expected the feds to be on their side thanks to the powerful example of Abraham Lincoln.[33] One of Wilson's first major domestic policies was segregating the federal government and sweeping many racist neo-Confederates into top offices.[34] Wilson purged black officeholders who had been appointed by his Republican predecessors,[35] and subjected those who remained to indignities like being made to work hidden behind screens[36] or in literal cages.[37] Wilson had destroyed the last active legacy of the anti-racist Republicans of old and completed the entry of Jim Crow into every public American space.

As if to rub it in, Woodrow Wilson had the incredibly racist and pseudohistorical film The Birth of a Nation shown in the White House. The film had used a quote taken directly from Woodrow Wilson that exalted and whitewashed (sorry about the pun) the original Ku Klux Klan.[38] Having the film participated in by and shown to the US president brought it to national attention, greatly furthering its message of the Lost Cause of the South and the importance for a new age of white supremacy.

1919, the year of hate[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Red Summer
Stoning a black man to death in the Chicago race riot of 1919.
[T]he shame put upon the country by the mobs, including United States soldiers, sailors, and marines, which have assaulted innocent and unoffending negroes in the national capital. Men in uniform have attacked negroes on the streets and pulled them from streetcars to beat them. Crowds are reported... to have directed attacks against any passing negro.... The effect of such riots in the national capital upon race antagonism will be to increase bitterness and danger of outbreaks elsewhere.
NAACP protest telegram to President Wilson after the Washington DC race riot.[39]

Towards the end of Wilson's exceptionally racist presidency, the US was paralyzed by nearly a year of destructive race riots and white supremacist terrorist acts across more than three dozen cities.[40] This is called the Red Summer, although the violence lasted far longer than a single season.

World War I had intensified the Great Migration due to the demand for industrial jobs, and black Americans returning home from service overseas expected to be treated with the respect they deserved after honorably serving their country.[41] Instead, their white countrymen met them with fear and revulsion, demanding that black people quietly return to being oppressed.

White citizens, usually normal civilians unaffiliated with terrorist groups or the KKK, formed mobs across the country in an attempt to force black people back into their perceived rightful place. Racial violence began in the spring but started to dramatically intensify in late July after rumors of a black man being arrested for rape in Washington DC led to the US national capital being overtaken by four days of murderous terror from white mobs, killing between 15 and 40 people.[42]

By far the biggest race riot blew up in Chicago in early August after black teenagers were beaten with rocks and then drowned for the offense of getting too close to a whites-only beach.[41] Violent rioting across Chicago's South and West sides and into the downtown lasted days; official casualty counts listed 38 deaths.[41]

Redlining and housing policy[edit]

Redlining map of Philadelphia. The areas deemed "hazardous" for investment were the black and minority neighborhoods.[43]
The FHA [Federal Housing Administration] adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg laws.
—Professor Charles Abrams, University of Pennsylvania, quoted by the Penn Political Review.[44]

While segregation definitely existed in the northern and midwestern states beforehand, it got a whole lot worse after the wave of black migration made more whites think segregation necessary. Black migration northwards continued into the 1930s.[45] State governments passed segregation laws in these regions, and the federal government used construction projects initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt to create segregated neighborhoods by bulldozing integrated ones.[46]

The Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, refused to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods and simultaneously sponsored builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for white-only communities.[47] This policy was known as "redlining" because the federal government literally created racial maps of American cities to highlight African-American areas as too risky to invest in.[46] As a result of that, black areas became more and more run down, increasingly avoided by white citizens.

Attempts to stall its destruction[edit]

Since the Southern Strategy and the Reagan era, desegregation of public schools, lead regulations, health insurance equity, and poverty relief have slowed down and can be tied to the stagnation of black wages today.[48] The Affordable Care Act is attempting to address at least one of these concerns.[49]

Libertarian views[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Libertarianism

While libertarians, almost inherently, are opposed to government discrimination, such as Jim Crow laws,[50] their views on the remedy of the Civil Rights Act are mixed. Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in public accommodations. Some — but not all — libertarians are opposed to the idea that a privately-owned business can be told by the government that they must serve everyone; according to these libertarians, this is in opposition to the idea of freedom of association for individuals (or corporations — same thing to them apparently).[51] Rand Paul has questioned Title II,[50][52] Peter Thiel has expressed opposition to both women's suffrage (the Nineteenth Amendment in the US) and "welfare beneficiaries"[53] (reasonably interpreted to mean minorities).[54]

See also[edit]


  1. Einstein at Lincoln, Snopes
  2. Residential segregation in the United States. Wikiquote.
  3. Lawrence Otis Graham, Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. Harper Collins, 2009. p.335.
  4. Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education, Smithsonian
  5. Examples of Jim Crow laws, Ferris State University
  6. Charles Martin. Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980. University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  7. Lowery, Malinda Maynor (2010). Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation. Univ of North Carolina Press. pp. 0–339. ISBN 9780807833681.
  8. Attacking Segregation Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
  9. Segregation's Legacy. US News.
  10. Modern Segregation. Economic Policy Institute.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Who Was Jim Crow? National Geographic.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Who Was Jim Crow? Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
  13. See the Wikipedia article on Wilmington insurrection of 1898 § The White Declaration of Independence.
  14. Michael Perman (2009). Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South. Univ of North Carolina Press. pp. 138–. ISBN 978-0-8078-3324-7.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Wilmington insurrection of 1898.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Voting Rights For Blacks And Poor Whites In The Jim Crow South.
  17. See the Wikipedia article on White primary.
  18. 18.0 18.1 A Brief History of Jim Crow. Constitutional Rights Foundation.
  19. Virginia's Constitution. Howard, A. E. Dick. Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Virginia Historical Society.
  20. Race and Voting in the Segregated South. Constitutional Rights Foundation.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Jim Crow's Schools. American Federation of Teachers.
  22. Reese, W. (2010). History, Education, and the Schools. Springer. p. 145. ISBN 978-0230104822.
  23. Racialized Poverty – The Legacy of Slavery. Equal Justice Initiative.
  24. Plessy v. Ferguson. Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
  25. See the Wikipedia article on Homer Plessy.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). PBS.
  27. Great Migration. Britannica.
  28. See the Wikipedia article on East St. Louis riots.
  29. Arnesen, Eric. (2003). Black protest and the great migration : a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. pp. 12–15, 29–35. ISBN 0-312-39129-3. OCLC 51099552.
  30. Thernstrom, Stephan (1973). The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-0674433946.
  31. Sundown Towns. Black Past.
  32. Loewen, James W. (1999). Lies Across America. New York, NY: Touchstone. ISBN 0-684-87067-3. pp. 102–103; 182–183
  33. The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson. The Atlantic.
  34. In Their Own Words: The long-forgotten racial attitudes & policies of Woodrow Wilson Keylor, William. Boston University.
  35. Segregation in the US Government (1913) PBS.
  36. The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service National Postal Museum.
  37. Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson W.E.B. DuBois. September 1913
  38. See the Wikipedia article on The Birth of a Nation § Special screenings.
  39. The New York Times (July 22, 1919h). "Protest Sent to Wilson". The New York Times. New York, NY: Adolph Ochs. ISSN 1553-8095. OCLC 1645522.
  40. See the Wikipedia article on Red Summer.
  41. 41.0 41.1 41.2 Red Summer: The Race Riots of 1919. National World War One Museum and Memorial.
  42. See the Wikipedia article on Washington race riot of 1919.
  43. How redlining segregated Philadelphia. PBS.
  44. The Legacy of the Federal Housing Administration. Penn Political Review.
  45. How 13 migrations of African-Americans changed the nation. USA Today.
  46. 46.0 46.1 The Jim Crow North. The New York Times Upfront.
  47. A 'Forgotten History' Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America. NPR.
  48. What If Black America Were a Country?, The Atlantic
  49. Charts: The economic gap between blacks and whites hasn’t budged for 50 years, The Washington Post
  50. 50.0 50.1 Context Matters: A Better Libertarian Approach to Antidiscrimination Law by David E. Bernstein (June 16, 2010) Cato Unbound.
  51. Libertarianism and the Right to Discriminate by Robert A. Levy (March/April 2016) Cato Policy Report.
  52. Rand Paul's rewriting of his own remarks on the Civil Rights Act by Glenn Kessler (April 11, 2013) The Washington Post.
  53. The Education of a Libertarian by Peter Thiel (April 13, 2009) Cato Unbound.
  54. 11 questions to see if libertarians are hypocrites: Eleven questions that expose their contradictions and faulty logic by R.J. Eskow (Sep 12, 2013 12:19 PM EDT) Salon.


  1. One cause of this phenomenon is white people actively leaving neighborhoods that black people decide to live in; see our article on white flight for more details.
  2. This was before Richard Nixon enacted the Southern Strategy and the Democratic and Republican Parties swapped roles, meaning that the Democrats were the racist fuckwits and the Republicans were actually reasonable.