Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern states from the 1870s into the 1960s. These laws were enacted after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities.
At the end of the Civil War, four million African Americans were freed from slavery, leaving them landless and little money to support themselves. Though Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau shortly before the end of the war, the Bureau would be quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people that needed help.
President Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln was killed, favored readmitting the Southern states as quickly as possible into the Union and appointed Union military governors who held full power in the former Confederate states until new civilian governments could be organized. Johnson was also a firm supporter of states’ rights. In the meantime, White Southerners resented being ruled by Union military governors and Freedmen’s Bureau officials and sought to restore self-rule. During the summer and fall of 1865, most of the old Confederate states held constitutional conventions, which permitted only white men to vote or participate in framing the new state governments. The new state legislatures began to pass laws known as “Black Codes,” limiting the freedom of African Americans, including the denial of voting, serving on juries, traveling freely, or working in occupations of their choice.
An editorial in the Macon, Georgia, Daily Telegraph reflected the widely held opinion of the white South at this time: “There is such a radical difference in the mental and moral [nature] of the white and black race, that it would be impossible to secure order in a mixed community by the same [law].”
The Black Codes in Mississippi and South Carolina in 1865 provoked a storm of protests among many Northerners, who accused the Southern whites of trying to restore slavery. As a result, Congress refused to seat Southerners elected under the new state constitutions.
A special congressional committee investigated whether white Southern Reconstruction should be allowed to continue. Congress then passed the Civil Rights Act in 1866 (over Johnson’s veto), and Republicans in Congress effectively took control of Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment, which granted “equal protection” of the Constitution to former slaves and to enact universal male suffrage before they could rejoin the Union.
Under the direction of Congress, most Southern states held new constitutional conventions in 1867-68, and for the first time, freedmen voted and participated. Soon, blacks won elections to southern state legislatures and even to the U.S. Congress. By 1868, most states had repealed the remains of discriminatory Black Code laws.
However, Federal protection of the rights of blacks was dealt a major defeat with the Compromise of 1877, when Southern Democrats conceded the closely contested 1876 presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, when political power was returned to Southern whites in nearly every state of the former Confederacy. At that point, the federal government also abandoned attempts to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments in many parts of the country.
By this time, African Americans in the South had seen a slight improvement in their economic and social status, and the vigorous efforts of white supremacist forces throughout the region, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts, had undone the political gains they had made. White southerners continued to cling to the notion that non-whites were inherently inferior to whites and were committed to the survival of plantation agriculture through intimidation and the passing of Jim Crow laws that revived the principles of the 1865 and 1866 Black Codes.
These new laws, which imposed racial discrimination and segregation and restricted African Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties, were called “Jim Crow” for a black character in 1800s minstrel shows in which white performers wore “Blackface.”
These many laws were a patchwork of state and local laws, codes, and agreements that enforced segregation to varying degrees. African Americans were denied the right to vote by poll taxes, unfairly applied tests, and intimidation. In many towns, ordinances designated white and black neighborhoods. Laws were passed restricting African Americans’ access to schools, restaurants, libraries, hospitals, and public places. Signs that said “Whites Only” or “Colored” were posted at railroad and bus stations, water fountains, restrooms and entrances, and exits in public and private buildings. Hotels, movie theaters, arenas, nightclubs, restaurants, churches, hospitals, and schools were segregated, and interracial marriages were outlawed. Facilities for African Americans and other minorities were consistently inferior and underfunded compared to those for white Americans. Sometimes there were no facilities for people of color.
There was also a subtler social dimension to Jim Crow, requiring African Americans to demonstrate subservience and inferiority to whites. The shops of black businessmen were burned to the ground by jealous whites. A black woman who failed to step off the sidewalk to make way for a white man might be fired by her employer the following day. A black man with a relationship with a white woman might be hanged in the middle of town. Due to the prevalence of this character, “Jim Crow” became a derogatory term for people of African descent.
Though more than 130,000 blacks were registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896, only 1,342 were in the roles in 1904. By 1910, all Southern states had excluded blacks from voting.
The U.S. Supreme Court was inclined to agree with these segregation policies and set the stage for Jim Crow Laws with several of its decisions. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and ruled that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit individuals and private organizations from discriminating based on race. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision of “separate but equal” accommodations in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, ruling that racial segregation was constitutional. This paved the way for more racial segregation.
In 1913, the U.S. military was already segregated, and President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat, initiated the segregation of federal workplaces. By 1914, every Southern State had passed laws that created two separate societies — one black, one white, and by World War I, many places of employment were segregated.
Segregation was often maintained by uniformed law enforcement, but at other times, it was enforced by armed white mobs and violent attacks by anonymous vigilantes. Some African Americans resisted these restrictions with public advocacy, political activism, and individual self-defense. However, many more moved away from the south in what became known as the Great Migration, only to discover that they also faced discrimination in the northern states. From Delaware to California, many cities and states also imposed legal punishments on people for consorting with members of another race. The most common types of laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated. Discrimination in the north also existed in private covenants in leases in housing, bank lending practices, and employment preferences, including labor-union practices.
By 1915, the strength of Jim Crow Laws was slowly eroding. In 1915 the Supreme Court in Guinn v. United States ruled that an Oklahoma law that denied the right to vote to some citizens was unconstitutional. In 1917, in Buchanan V. Warley, the Court upheld that a Louisville, Kentucky law could not require residential segregation.
Following World War II, Jim Crow segregation came under increasing attack. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in 1948, President Truman issued an executive order officially desegregating the U.S. armed forces. In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas must admit a black man, Herman Sweatt, to the law school because the state did not provide equal education for him.
But the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy, holding that segregated facilities were “inherently unequal.” In some states, it took many years to implement this decision.
In the middle of the 20th century, generations of resistance to segregation culminated in the Civil Rights movement. African Americans launched widespread demonstrations and other public protests to demand the rights and protections provided by the Constitution. Throughout the 1960s, Jim Crow was dismantled piece by piece through legislation that made it illegal to segregate public facilities, suppress voting, discriminate in housing, or prohibit interracial marriage.
A march on Washington by over 200,000 people in 1963 dramatized the movement to end Jim Crow. Any remaining discriminatory laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, it would take years of action and court challenges to enforce the laws, and the impact of a century of segregation can still be felt today.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
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