Jim Crow was a set of ideas, social norms, life ways, mythoforms, role-play symbols, sanctions, and devastations created after the Civil War by white politicians intent on maintaining a system of oppressive control over African American life and economics. With the support of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose decision of 1883 declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, Jim Crow laws aimed their invasive enterprise at the level of social reality and psychological manifestation in order to reestablish a stratified social hierarchy based on white subjugation of African American people.
Historical and Political Antecedents
There were many precursors to the enthronement of Jim Crow as a living institution, such as the exploitative and bondage-centered sharecropping farming system; the “benign” neglect of President Andrew Johnson to enforce Reconstruction laws; the rise of the ability of white rebel soldiers to gain political positions in state and national government; the intimidation, terrorizing, and murder of African Americans by former Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest and his Ku Klux Klan; and the deaths of radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens of Georgia and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who were committed to full rights for African Americans. Then, in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes became president and removed all federal troops from the South. This act ensured and permanently established the national attack on African Americans in the South and the North. The anti-African rhetoric of white supremacist congressmen like James Vardaman of Mississippi and Carter Glass of Virginia helped other white supremacists to write and enforce anti-African social conduct rules and discriminatory practices. These dehumanizing codes of behavior and rules for discriminatory treatment against African Americans were called “Jim Crow” laws.
The tacit agreement between the Republican Party and the Southern Dixicrats (Southern Democrats), which returned full control over the Southern states to the rebel white supremacists who had become politicians, encouraged local, state, and national movements to create and enact Jim Crow laws and customs to rob, steal, and deny African Americans their civil rights and money, as well as to prevent African Americans from owning land, resigning from jobs, voting, renting land—in short, doing anything without the control of a white supremacist male. This peonage process set the stage for a national challenge to the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that had ensured African Americans civil rights in every aspect of American society. The 1883 Supreme Court decision against the Civil Rights Act then justified Americans' overt displays of white supremacist thinking, values, ideas, practices, and iconic symbols in every educational, legal, scientific, religious, economic, and social institution.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had safeguarded African Americans from being denied use of and access to parks, public restaurants, post offices, churches, beaches, playgrounds, hotels, movies, banks, swimming pools, hospitals, colleges, public schools, and other open public accommodations. The hostile, pro-white supremacy decision by the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated this ban on segregation. Thus, Southern legislators at local, state, and national levels rushed to set up Jim Crow rules of conduct that created a system of legal separated accommodations for blacks and whites.
The Plessy Challenge
In 1896, in a Supreme Court case, Homer Plessy challenged his conviction for violating the Jim Crow laws of Louisiana. Plessy argued that he had a mixture of African American and European blood and that due to his white-skinned appearance, he had a right to use the same accommodations used by whites. The court decided in favor of the state and wrote a decision that stated that if Plessy had one drop of African blood, then he was African and therefore had to comply with the Jim Crow laws of Louisiana. The ultimate impact of this decision was that the “separate but equal” doctrine was applied to all aspects of American life. Since African people were considered different and inferior, when African people attempted to retain their dignity and assert their equality with others, they were often attacked. Thus, due to the Plessy decision, African Americans were subjected to an onslaught and nightmare of verbal and physical attacks, police brutality, lynching, murders, several decades of situational and institutional discriminatory mistreatment, inhumane living and working conditions, and a total erosion of all of their economic, educational, civil, and human rights.
The Final Overthrow of Jim Crow
In the face of this systemic oppression, it took numerous African American leaders and their supporters many decades to successfully navigate and fight against this institutionalized subordination of their race. Their efforts in protest against racism were ultimately manifested in the Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1967, the 1960s civil rights activism, the 1960s and 1970s militant activism, and the Black Studies movements, which were able to progressively break down and decimate many vestiges of the Jim Crow laws. In the final analysis, the lingering retentions of Jim Crow and their potential negative impacts will need to be anticipated, identified, analyzed, and eradicated such that the horrors of this system of discrimination used against African Americans and other cultural groups will not continue or reappear.
- Jim Crow
- white supremacists
- Jim Crow laws
- Civil Rights Act of 1875
- African Americans
- Civil Rights Acts
- civil rights
- Asante, Molefi Kete. (1995). African American History: A Journey of Liberation. Maywood, NJ: The Peoples Publishing Group. This comprehensive history of African Americans discusses, among other things, the resistance to Jim Crowism among African Americans.
- DaSilva, Benjamin, Finkelstein, Milton, and Loshin, Arlene. (1969). The Afro-American in United States History. New York: Globe Book Company. This is one of the key resources on the historical and social issues confronting contemporary African Americans.
- Newby, I. A. (1965). Jim Crow's Defense: Anti-Negro Thought in America, 1900–1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Newby's book is a study of Jim Crowism and its roots in the doctrine of white supremacy.