A Brief history of Jim Crow Laws

“Jim Crow” has long been a derogatory slang term for a black man, making it a fitting name for the laws that were in force in the South and some border states from 1877 through the mid-1960s. These laws were in place to maintain racial segregation after the Civil War ended. Initially, Jim Crow laws required the separation of white people and people of color on all forms of public transportation and in schools. Eventually, the segregation expanded to include interaction and commingling in schools, cemeteries, parks, theaters, and restaurants. Often, anyone who was suspected of having a black ancestor, even just one in the very distant past, was considered to be a person of color and therefore subject to the Jim Crow laws. The overarching purpose of Jim Crow laws was to prevent contact between black people and white people as equals, establishing white people as above black people.

Jim Crow laws began in 1877 when the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn’t prohibit segregation on common modes of transportation such as trains, streetcars, and riverboats. Later, in 1883, the Supreme Court overturned specific parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, confirming the “separate but equal” concept. During the ensuing years, states passed laws instituting requirements for separate and equal accommodations for blacks on public modes of transportation. Black people also had separate schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, restrooms, and prisons, and these facilities were usually inferior to facilities for white people, although the laws called for the separate facilities to be of equal quality. Jim Crow laws also influenced social interactions between blacks and whites. Failure to enforce these laws resulted in fines or imprisonment.

Into the 20th century, Jim Crow laws continued to govern everyday life in America, prohibiting black and white interaction. For instance, in the state of Georgia, blacks and whites had to use separate parks. Blacks and whites could not play checkers together in Birmingham, Alabama, under a 1930 law. And in 1935, blacks and whites were forbidden from boating together in Oklahoma. Blacks who violated these laws could be physically beaten by whites without reprisal; lynchings occurred with startling frequency when blacks violated Jim Crow laws.

When World War II erupted and the United States entered the conflict, Jim Crow laws were still in force. Racial segregation was an integral part of society in some parts of the country, and so black men who served in the military were assigned to segregated divisions. Black servicemen were given lesser support positions such as grave-digging or cooking, and they were served food in separate lines from white servicemen. At first, black servicemen did not engage in combat, but as the war went on, increasing numbers were placed in front-line positions, where they served with distinction.

After World War II ended, America’s segregation policies were put under the microscope. President Harry Truman created a committee to investigate the issue, and in 1948, Truman issued an executive order that eliminated racial discrimination in all of the military branches. The tide began to turn noticeably toward equality in the following years with a series of Supreme Court victories for civil rights. Black people finally began breaking down racial barriers and challenging segregation with success, and the pinnacle of this effort was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished the Jim Crow laws. This law outlawed discrimination in any type of public accommodation. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act followed, which protected black people’s right to vote by barring discriminatory voting laws.

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