What is Jim Crow?

An Overview of an Era in American History

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Segregated Waiting Room, 1940. Photo Quest/Getty Images

Overview 

The Jim Crow Era in United States history began towards the end of the Reconstruction Period and lasted until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Jim Crow Era was more than a body of legislative acts on the federal, state and local levels that barred African-Americans from being full American citizens. It was also a way of life that allowed de jure racial segregation to exist in the South and de facto segregation to thrive in the North.

Origin of the Term "Jim Crow" 

In 1832,  Thomas D. Rice, a white actor, performed in blackface to a routine known as “Jump Jim Crow.” 

By the end of the 19th Century as southern states passed legislation that segregated African-Americans, the term Jim Crow was used to define these laws

In 1904, the phrase Jim Crow Law was appearing in American newspapers.

Establishment of a Jim Crow Society

In 1865, African-Americans were emancipated from enslavement with the thirteenth amendment.

By 1870, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments are also passed, granting citizenship to African-Americans and allowing African-American the right to vote.

By the end of the Reconstruction period, African-Americans were losing federal support in the South. As a result, white legislators on state and local levels passed a series of laws that separated African-Americans and whites in public facilities such as schools, parks, cemeteries, theaters, and restaurants.

In addition to barring African-Americans and whites from being in integrated public areas, laws were established prohibiting African-American men from participating in the election process. By enacting poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, state and local governments were able to exclude African-American from voting.

 

The Jim Crow Era was not just laws passed to separate blacks from whites. It was also a way of life. White intimidation from organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan kept African-Americans from rebelling against these laws and becoming too successful in southern society. For instance, when writer Ida B. Wells began exposing the practice of lynching and other forms of terrorism through her newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight, her printing office was burned to the ground by white vigilantes.  

Impact on American Society 

In response to Jim Crow Era laws and lynchings, African-Americans in the South began participating in the Great Migration. African-Americans moved to cities and industrial towns in the North and West hoping to escape the de jure segregation of the South. However, they were unable to elude de facto segregation, which barred African-Americans in the North from joining specific unions or being hired in particular industries, purchasing homes in some communities, and attending choice schools.

In 1896, a group of African-American women established the National Association of Colored Women  to support women’s suffrage and fight against other forms of social injustice.

By 1905, W.E.B.

Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter developed the Niagara Movement, assembling more than 100 African-American men throughout the United States to aggressively fight against racial inequality.  Four years later, the Niagara Movement morphed into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to fight against social and racial inequality through legislation, court cases and protests.

The African-American press exposed the horrors of Jim Crow to readers throughout the country. Publications such as the Chicago Defender provided readers in southern states with news about urban environments—listing train schedules and job opportunities.

An End to the Jim Crow Era 

During World War II the wall of Jim Crow began to slowly crumble. On the federal level, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Act or Executive Order 8802 in 1941 which desegregated employment in war industries after civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a March on Washington in protest to racial discrimination in the war industries.

 

Thirteen years later, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ruling found the separate but equal laws unconstitutional and desegregated public schools.

In 1955, a seamstress and NAACP secretary named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus. Her refusal led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year and began the modern Civil Rights Movement.

By 1960s, college students were working with organizations such as CORE and SNCC, travelling to the South to spearhead voter registration drives.  Men such as Martin Luther King Jr., were speaking not only throughout the United States, but the world, about the horrors of segregation.

Finally, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Jim Crow Era was buried for good.