What Prompted the Passage of Jim Crow Laws?

by Jennifer Mueller Google

In the 1800s, white minstrel performers painted their faces black to present unflattering comic portrayals of black characters for white audiences. One such character, Jim Crow, became a symbol of black racial inferiority in white popular culture. After the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, many states passed Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation. These laws were prompted by racist fears that African-Americans threatened the economic and political power of white elites.

Reconstruction and Black Codes

As America entered the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, the former Confederate states enacted "black codes" that restricted the freedom of African-Americans. Despite the equal rights guaranteed to former slaves by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, these laws severely limited their physical and economic freedom. The codes required African-Americans to submit written proof of employment or risk being arrested for vagrancy, imprisoned or forced into labor. In some states, black codes also restricted the types of jobs African-Americans could hold. For example, in South Carolina, African-Americans had to pay a steep tax unless they worked as farmers or servants.

Separate But Equal

The federal government attempted to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments with the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that that law was unconstitutional, setting the stage for Jim Crow laws. The first test of these laws came in 1896. Homer Plessy attempted to sit in a white train car, in violation of Louisiana's law mandating separate train cars for white and colored people. Plessy appealed his conviction, arguing that the law violated his 13th and 14th Amendment rights. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld Louisiana's segregation laws. According to the court's opinion, there was nothing about the requirement of separate accommodations that necessarily inferred one race was inferior to the other.

The Segregated South

The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy's case paved the way for other Jim Crow laws. By 1914, every Southern state had segregation laws in place. These laws required separate "white" and "colored" facilities in theaters, restaurants, hospitals and schools. For example, in Alabama, restaurants were forbidden from serving black and white customers in the same room unless their spaces were separated by a wall at least 7 feet tall. Sometimes these laws went beyond physical separation, as in North Carolina, where it was illegal to exchange textbooks between white and black schools. For 58 years, the federal government condoned these segregation laws as an appropriate exercise of state police power.

The Marshall Attack

For decades, Jim Crow ruled the South as African-Americans moved to the cities of the industrialized North in droves. Gradually, these African-Americans became more active in politics and pressed for greater federal intervention to enforce equal rights for minorities. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1940s and early 1950s loosened segregation's grip on the South. Thurgood Marshall, as an attorney for the NAACP, successfully argued cases that resulted in the desegregation of interstate travel and housing, leading to his ultimate victory in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The court's decision in the Brown case overturned the decision in the Plessy case and found Jim Crow laws unconstitutional.

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