What Was Jim Crow?

Jim Crow represents the system of white supremacy that ruled the United States from the conclusion of the American Civil War, until the triumph of civil rights in the mid-1960s.

Feb 27, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

Jim Crow Colored Water Fountain segregation 1938


Jim Crow refers to a system of laws that originated in the Southern United States, systematically depriving African Americans equal rights and opportunities across multiple aspects of life, from education and housing, to access for public utilities. Legally mandated racial segregation and enforced disenfranchisement from the right to vote were backed by intimidation and violence. The civil rights movement of the 1960s eventually led to the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, through legal challenges and popular protest.


From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

Left to right, Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi with some of the first Black members of Congress: Benjamin Turner, Robert De Large, Josiah Walls, Jefferson Long, Joseph Rainey, and Robert Brown Elliot, circa 1870. Source: Yes Magazine


Following the triumph of the Union in the American Civil War, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery and the subsequent 14th Amendment granted formerly enslaved people citizenship, legal protection, and the right to due process under the law. The post-war period ushered in the Reconstruction era, addressing political and legal issues regarding the reintegration of the South and conditions for economic recovery. Under the protection of Federal troops, some 4 million emancipated slaves gained the right to vote and elect representatives to state legislatures and the US Congress. 


However, as the reconstruction era reached its conclusion, a new system of racial inequality – designed to claw back the relative gains made by black Southerners – was put into practice in the South. The spread of so-called Jim Crow laws ensured that the promises of black emancipation and suffrage were swiftly eroded. 


The Meaning of Jim Crow

Etching of Jim Crow character published by Hodgson, circa 1835, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


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The term “Jim Crow” is thought to stem from a minstrel character played by a white actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice in the 1830s. Rice’s character, Jim Crow, though rooted in a folk trickster that was popular among black slaves, was in reality little more than a racist caricature. 


Blacked up and speaking in a mock African American vernacular, in 1828 Rice popularized the old slave song “Jump Jim Crow”, which he subsequently performed – in character – all over the United States. Rice’s fame most likely contributed to the widespread adoption of “Jim Crow” as a pejorative, derogatory term for African Americans.


Following the abolition of slavery, the term Jim Crow came to be associated with the principle of “separate but equal” – and the decision of the US Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) to allow the use of segregation laws by states and local governments in the South. 


Jim Crow in Practice

The Union as it was the lost cause, worse than slavery by Thomas Nast, 1874. Source: The Library of Congress


After the withdrawal of the last Federal soldiers from the former Confederate States in 1877, the Jim Crow era began. Throughout the South, state legislatures enacted an enormous raft of laws enforcing segregation in public facilities (including housing, schools, public toilets, restaurants, and drinking fountains), triggering decades of harsh legal and social mis-treatment of African Americans.


Interracial marriage was banned and a “poll tax” and literacy tests were introduced to prevent blacks from voting. Segregation mandated ritual humiliation: on public transport – black individuals were compelled to stand if a white person demanded their seat. White restaurants refused to serve blacks or required them to sit at tables in the kitchen or outside.


White supremacist paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan perpetrated violence and terror upon black communities. Between 1877 and 1950, nearly four thousand black men were lynched in the South – which often doubled as a pleasurable day out for white families.  


The Civil Rights Movement

Civil rights demonstrators in Washington D.C. protesting police brutality in Alabama and voting rights by Warren K. Leffler, 1965. Source: Library of Congress, Washington DC


Legal battles and grassroots protests against the daily injustices of Jim Crow gained momentum over time. The pivotal moment in the modern civil rights movement occurred in 1954. In the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court declared state laws for separate schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision spelled the end of legal segregation in public schools. 


Following Rosa Parks‘ arrest in 1955, a year-long boycott against racial segregation on public buses unfolded in Alabama. In the early 1960s, sit-ins, “Freedom Rides” (1961), and mass protests like the March on Washington (1963), where Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech followed. 


The civil rights movement fused Gandhian-inspired non-violence with militant black power, creating a diverse struggle. Despite facing massive white resistance and frequent episodes of mob and police violence, the official end of legal segregation eventually came with the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).  

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.