Jim Crow Laws Main Problems for Black Americans in the 1920s and 1930s

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 3 January 2017

Jim Crow Laws Main Problems for Black Americans in the 1920s and 1930s

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed all men in America – black or white – equal. However, throughout the rest of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century African-Americans were widely discriminated especially in the Southern states of the country. They faced serious social, economic and political problems and were regarded by most people as the inferior race.

Although America was referred to by its president Woodrow Wilson as the “great melting pot” in 1915 and although it was supposed to be a country where “all men are created equal” as stated in the Constitution; this certainly was not the case. American society was divided by strict racial hierarchy with the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) on the very top, other European immigrants in the middle and with blacks descending mainly from slaves on the very bottom. Historians argue why this was and why the desires of some leaders to create a homologous nation really stayed only desires.

Some argue that the ethnic minorities faced discrimination in everyday life because it had legal basis in the so called “Jim Crow” laws, which promoted the “separate but equal” decision of the Supreme Court from 1896. These laws were introduced in the South to support the separation of the races and basically made the discrimination of Blacks legal. However, others argue that the reason for discrimination lay deeper in the American history and that it rooted from the established racial hierarchy.

There were many half-secret organisations that fought for the white supremacy and some historians, such as David M. Chalmers argue that it was the existences of such groups that caused the discrimination against blacks. Some historians also argue that the federal apathy was another important obstacle blacks had to face. This was because of the laissez-faire policy and also because of personal racist views held by the presidents of the era, who wanted (as the rest of American people) to keep power in the hands of the WASP establishment.

Some other historians would argue that it was the impact of World War One that deepened the racial problems and others believe that blacks had to deal with discrimination because of the fear of the whites that their social and economic status were under threat. This essay will examine all those possible reasons why black people were treated with hostility in the interwar period and will prove that while the Jim Crow laws were important in justifying this approach; it was in fact the deep-rooted racism that caused all the other factors and led to the savage discrimination of African-Americans.

Some historians, such as John A. Kerr argue that the Jim Crow laws were the main cause of the discrimination present in American states. The decision of the Supreme Court in 1896 led to proliferation of these laws throughout the South as Homer Plessy lost his case and the Court found that the laws were not breaking the US Constitution. The Court decided to support the popular “Separate but Equal” policy, which meant that as long as equal facilities were provided, the segregation of the races wasn? unconstitutional. Seven of the eight justices at the trial favoured this decision and stated that the 14th Amendment to the US constitution was not “intended to abolish distinctions based upon colour” and that separation of those does not “necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other. ” This decision disappointed black people as they knew that it was very unlikely that the states would provide them with equal facilities.

As a result of this case states could impose legal punishments on people consorting with members of another race. The most common examples of Jim Crow laws were forbidding intermarriage and ordering business owners and public institutions (schools, offices) to keep their black and white clientele separate. Basically, the discrimination of black Americans was now legal. The only justice that didn? t agree with the court? s decision, John Harlan, summarised it well stating “the present decision… ill not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of coloured citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficial purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent (13th and 14th) amendments of the Constitution. ” In addition, even though black people possessed the right to vote, by the year 1902 there was only 3,000 black voters in Alabama as it was one of the states that created impossible qualification tests for black voters.

In a state where African-American population was significant with around 900,000 individuals this isn? t surprising and only proves the extent of discrimination and racism present. These ridiculous tests, with questions such as “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap” denied blacks the opportunity to vote for their politicians and thus decreased the chances of a change of the situation. The Jim Crow laws were clearly a manifestation of the racism present within American culture, but they alone weren? t the reason for the hostility and discrimination towards the blacks.

The factor that caused the laws to come into existence and be accepted and followed was the deep-rooted racism and the presumed dominance of the WASPs and this was the main problem African-Americans had to deal with. Many historians would thus argue that the main reason why ethnic minorities and blacks in particular, faced discrimination was the existence of racial hierarchy and deep-rooted racism inherent within the American WASP culture. After the 13th Amendment in 1865 that freed the former black slaves and the 14th and 15th Amendments that provided them with equal rights and suffrage, African-American hoped for a new better beginning.

However, the former slave-owners and other WASPs living especially in the south were not willing to undergo such change. The problem wasn? t only with blacks, other ethnic groups different from the white “acceptable” Americans of northern European origin suffered from discrimination and perceived inferiority as well. Americans wanted to keep their standard of WASP Americanism and were unwilling to accept other cultures as equal. There were many pseudo-scientific findings that were meant to prove this inequality.

Joseph Le Conte, an American anthropologist, for example claimed that “modern ethnologists have thoroughly established the fact that in all essential qualities the Negro race seems to be totally incapable of development”. Racial stereotypes of blacks as inferior beings were popular throughout American society and although the racial hierarchy was mostly unspoken, there were clear signs of it in every aspect of the culture. As the blacks were always regarded as inferior, low-class people, it was not easy for the white supremacy supporters to all of a sudden support their equality.

Racism had a strong historical context in American society and it was this that caused the Jim Crow laws to be legalised and supremacist organisations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to form. Therefore the deep-rooted racism must be seen as the key problem Blacks had to face as it caused all the other obstacles for them and resulted in discrimination in all levels of the society. However, some historians would argue that it was the existence of the supremacist organisations that posed the biggest trouble to the black Americans.

Ku Klux Klan was formed immediately after the end of the Civil War but its main wave of actions happened during the 1920s and 30s. The founder of the second KKK, who awoke the old tradition in 1915, was William J. Simmons. His aim was to purge Southern culture of corrupting influences that were according to him trying to “destroy WASP America. ” These were apparently not only blacks, but also other ethnic and religious groups, such as Catholics, Jews and even communists. The Klan used violent methods to intimidate and suppress these groups.

Mob violence and lynching were a daily fact of life in the south during the 1920s. However, the organisation became gradually more national with members in the northern countries as well as in the southern ones. It restricted its membership to native-born white Protestants and it attracted many people due to blacks? migration and social fears resulting from it; many people across the country became committed to the “100% Americanism” and were afraid of losing the position on the top of the racial hierarchy. As historian Paul S.

Boyer states, “The organisation consisted primarily of ordinary people, not criminals or fanatics. The Klan? s promise to restore the nation to an imagined purity – ethnical, moral and religious – appealed powerfully to ill-educated and deeply religious Americans. ” By 1925 KKK had 5 million members and it dominated state legislatures. Assembly men, sheriffs, judges – all were members of the Klan and agreed with its policies, either secretly or publicly. The Klan used symbols, such as white robes and burning crosses to bring about and emphasise fear and as historian David M.

Chalmers argues they were viewed as a “super-secret organisation; masked and mysterious, with a tradition of violence for which a generation of legend had achieved a high measure of social approval. ” They were feared by the blacks and praised by the whites. Although the white supremacy organisations, such as the KKK played an important role in supporting racist actions and discrimination, they didn? t exist without a cause. This cause was the deep-rooted racism within American people as well as the social and economic fear after the “Great Migration” and the First World War.

It is also surprising that such a violent organisation was free to carry out its actions and was not stopped by neither federal, nor state governments. This shows that the legal aspect of discrimination was to a great extent the major problem for the blacks. However, racism would have existed without the laws, but the laws would not have existed without the deep-rooted racism in American culture, which establishes it as the key reason for all the problems. In any other instance, organisations such as the KKK and racist laws such as the Jim Crow laws would not be accepted by any government.

Thus, historians debate also the option that one of the biggest problems African Americans had to face during this time period was the federal government? s apathy. By the ruling of the Supreme Court in 1876 it has been decided that individual states could govern themselves as they saw fit. This led to proliferation of the Jim Crow laws in the South and increasing ignorance of the problem of discrimination in the North. What is more, it provided the federal government with an excuse to not intervene and carry out the ineffective laissez-faire policy.

Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat president during and after the First World War, was even racist himself. He declared that the blacks were “an ignorant and inferior race” and strongly defended segregation stating in 1916 that it is “not humiliating and is a benefit to you Black gentlemen. ” Even though he is known for his campaign for international brotherhood and peace and he denounced the tactics of the KKK, he openly sympathised with its efforts to restore the white supremacy. Clearly, the racism in America was deep-rooted in all levels of the society.

In the 1920s Republicans held the presidential office in their hands and as part of their overall approach to ruling they applied the laissez-faire attitude towards social affairs. As Calvin Coolidge stated “the chief business of the American people is business”. They simply did not think it was their job to intervene in people? s everyday lives. Moreover, the various administrations seemed to close their eyes to racial discrimination. Anti-lynching law in 1921 was never passed as it was defeated by Southern Senators and that meant that the organisations such as the KKK could continue with their horrible actions.

What is more, the Klan was allowed to organise 40,000 men march on Washington DC in 1925 showing its strength and being de facto supported by the federal government. Blacks were also further excluded from the Republican Party and had to submit to segregation in the White House and the federal civil service. The evidence shows that Blacks were discriminated in all levels of the society. Even the presidents themselves were racist and did nothing to tackle the inequalities, if not making them worse.

The federal apathy clearly rooted from the racism present among the public and the government was simply responding to the will of the people. This created further complications for the African Americans to gain their civil rights as they had to face racism and discrimination not only at everyday levels but also at the proper political ones. Historians also debate the possibility that the aftermath of WW1 causing the “Great Migration” and wide spread social and economic fears was itself the reason for discrimination of black Americans.

In the WW1, many African-Americans fought for the country, but even more of them were employed in munitions, other factories and agriculture to keep the country going. As a result, many blacks moved from the South to the North as they saw it as a chance for better life. Whites didn? t always welcome these migrants as they, too, had racism deep in their minds. Black migrants were also seen as an unwanted job competition – in 1917 in St. Louis 40 blacks and 9 whites were killed in race riot over employment.

Although discrimination was nowhere near legal as it was in the South with the Jim Crow laws, whites in the North considered themselves superior as well and were ready to defend their position on the racial hierarchy. In Chicago, race riots began when a black boy accidentally swam to “white only” waters and the respectable white American citizens present on the beach stoned him to death. As Willoughby and Willoughby argue, “This incident clearly indicates the depth and extent of the hatred and prejudice. ” And it indeed does.

As shown above, the KKK had huge number of supporters and members in the North as well ever since its reformation and this meant that even the Northern WASPs were ready to discriminate. This leads back to the deep-rooted racism in the American culture and indicates it as the key problem. After the war ended, the closings of munitions factories hugely affected large proportion of the population. Blacks were then used as strike-breakers and were accused of lowering the wages as they were willing to work for less money.

This, of course, created tensions and caused the “native” white Americans to feel their economic and social status being genuinely under threat. However, this attitude towards African-Americans was nothing new. On balance, there have been Klan members and other WASPs discriminating previous to the war, but the “Great Migration” caused by northern agents recruiting black workers in the South for munitions factories and other jobs, significantly increased the hostility towards blacks and heated the already existing racial tensions.

It also gave further reasons to the “ordinary white workers” to support or join the Klan. Overall, there was no legal basis for discrimination in the north of the country, but the deep-rooted racism causing de facto segregation of the races provided strong enough reason for the racist Americans to discriminate. The black Americans faced serious problems of discrimination as they were regarded as members of the inferior race during the 19th and most of the 20th century. During the 1920s the tensions increased as the African Americans began to migrate within the US.

Jim Crow laws made it legal to discriminate in the south as they sought segregation of the races and indirectly approved the white supremacy. This, alongside with federal government unwillingness to do anything about them, made it possible for racist organisations, such as the KKK, to exist and promote the WASP superiority through violence. However, the view that the KKK itself was the cause of racism is over simplistic misconception as it would not exist and be widely supported if the people would not agree with its goals.

In addition, the impact of the First World War which meant increase in black migration to the North caused further deepening of racial problems there and was a factor in the increasing tensions. The problem black Americans faced was discrimination. This was possible to a great extent due to its de jure legalisation in the Jim Crow laws, but in actual fact the main problem blacks faced was the established racial hierarchy within the American society and the deep-rooted racism present in majority of the people.

Simply, Blacks were denied to vote, federal government refused to do anything about their inadequate treatment and the Ku Klux Klan successfully managed to question their equality by themselves. However, all these actions taken by the WASPs to secure their position were but a manifestation of a wider racist attitude that was deep-rooted in the culture. In final conclusion, Jim Crow laws were a problem for the black Americans in the 1920s and 30s, but it was not the main one as they had to deal with the deep-rooted racism first to get rid of their discrimination completely.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 3 January 2017

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