Jim Crow laws were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Named after an insulting song lyric regarding African Americans, the laws—which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968—were meant to return Southern states to an antebellum class structure by marginalizing black Americans. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws were often met with violence and death.
The roots of Jim Crow laws began as early as 1865, immediately following the ratification of the 13th Amendment freeing four million slaves.
Black codes were strict laws detailing when, where and how freed slaves could work, and for how much compensation. The codes appeared throughout the South as a legal way to put black citizens into indentured servitude, to take voting rights away, to control where they lived and how they traveled and to seize children for labor purposes.
The legal system was stacked against black citizens, with ex-Confederate soldiers working as police and judges, making it difficult for African Americans to win court cases and ensuring they became victim to the black codes.
These codes worked in conjunction with labor camps for the incarcerated, where prisoners were treated as slaves. Black offenders typically received longer sentences than their white equals, and because of the grueling work, often did not live out their entire sentence.
Ku Klux Klan
For the next 15 years, local government, as well as the national Democratic Party and even President Andrew Johnson, thwarted efforts to help the freed slaves move forward.
Violence was on the rise, making danger a regular aspect of black lives. Black schools were vandalized and destroyed, and bands of violent whites attacked black citizens in the night.
These were sometimes gruesome incidents where the victims were tortured and mutilated before being murdered. Families were attacked and forced off their land all across the South.
The KKK grew into a secret society terrorizing black communities and seeping through white southern culture, with members at the highest levels of government and in the lowest echelons of criminal back alleys.
Jim Crow Laws Reach the Cities
At the start of the 1880s, big cities in the south were not wholly beholden to Jim Crow laws and black Americans found more leeway in them.
This led to substantial black populations moving to the cities and, as the decade progressed, white city dwellers demanded more laws to limit opportunities for African Americans.
Jim Crow laws spread around the south with even more force than previously. Public parks were forbidden for African Americans to enter, and theaters and restaurants were segregated.
Jim Crow Laws Expand
The turn of the century saw states across the south ratcheting up Jim Crow laws, affecting every section of daily life.
Segregated waiting rooms in professional offices were required, as well as water fountains, restrooms, building entrances, elevators, cemeteries, even amusement-park cashier windows.
Laws forbade African Americans from living in white neighborhoods. Segregation was enforced for public pools, phone booths, hospitals, asylums, jails and residential homes for the elderly and handicapped.
Some states required separate textbooks black and white students. New Orleans mandated the segregation of prostitutes according to race. In Atlanta, African Americans in court were given a different Bible from whites to swear on. Marriage and cohabitation between whites and blacks was strictly forbidden in most southern states.
It was not uncommon to see signs posted at town and city limits warning African Americans that they were not welcome there.
Ida B. Wells
As oppressive as the Jim Crow era was, it was also a time that many black community members around the country stepped forward into leadership roles to vigorously oppose the laws.
Memphis teacher Ida B. Wells became a prominent activist against Jim Crow laws after refusing to leave a train car designated for whites only. As a conductor forcibly removed her, she bit him on the hand, but a judge ruled in her favor, though that decision was later reversed by a higher court.
Angry at the injustice, Wells devoted herself to fighting the oncoming Jim Crow laws in Memphis. Her vehicle for dissent was newspaper writing. In 1889 she became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and used her position to take on school segregation and sexual harassment.
Wells traveled throughout the south to publicize her work and advocated for the arming of black citizens. Wells also investigated lynchings and wrote about her findings.
A mob destroyed her newspaper and threatened her with death, forcing her to live in the north where she continued her efforts against Jim Crow laws and lynching.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown
Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a North Carolina-born, Massachusetts-raised black woman who returned to her birthplace at the age of 17, in 1901, to work as a teacher.
After school funding was withdrawn, Brown found herself fundraising for the school, named the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute.
Brown became the first black woman to create a black school in North Carolina and through her education work became a fierce and vocal opponent of Jim Crow laws.
Not everyone battled for rights within white society—some chose a separatist approach.
Convinced by Jim Crow laws that black and white people could not live together, ex-slave Isaiah Montgomery created the African American-only town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887.
Montgomery recruited other former slaves to settle in the wilderness with him, clearing the land and forging a settlement that included a school. Mound Bayou still exists and is still nearly 100 percent black.
Jim Crow Laws in the 20th Century
As the 20th Century progressed, Jim Crow laws flourished within an oppressive society marked by violence.
As lynchings increased, so did race riots, with a total of 23 in 1919, and not just confined to the South. In retaliation, white authorities charged black communities with secret conspiracies to conquer white America.
With Jim Crow dominating the landscape, education increasingly under attack and opportunities poor for college graduates, the 1920s saw a significant migration of educated blacks out of the south, spurred on by publications like The Chicago Defender, which encouraged blacks to move north.
Read by millions of southern blacks, whites attempted to ban the newspaper and threatened violence against any caught reading or distributing it.
Jim Crow in the North
The North was not immune to Jim Crow-like laws. Some states required blacks to own property to vote, schools and neighborhoods were segregated, and businesses displayed “whites only” signs.
After World War II, suburban developments were created that did not allow black families, and blacks often found it difficult or impossible to obtain mortgages for homes in certain “red-lined” neighborhoods.
The End of Jim Crow Laws
The post-World War II era saw an increase in civil rights activities in the black community, with a focus on ensuring that black citizens were able to vote. This ushered in a decades-long effort in the civil rights movement resulting in the removal of Jim Crow laws.
Jim Crow laws were technically off the books, though that has not always guaranteed full integration or adherence to anti-racism laws throughout the United States.