The History of the “Jim Crow” System

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The History of the “Jim Crow” System

For most white Americans, the demise of the Reconstruction in 1877 was not an occasion for mourning. Rather, it was an opportunity to reestablish the inferior status of the Negro in American society. The period from the 1880s to the 1960s was therefore characterized with the emergence of laws that implemented segregation between blacks and whites (Carlisle and Golson 214). These edicts, collectively known as the “Jim Crow” system, ultimately brought about a way of life that relegated blacks to the status of second-class citizens.

“Jim Crow” originally referred to a minstrel character that was created in 1830 by a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. According to legend, Rice was able to come up with the concept of “Jim Crow” after chancing upon an elderly African-American man who was suffering from rheumatism. Drawing inspiration from the old man’s appearance and movements, he went onstage sporting blackface makeup and danced a ridiculous jig while singing the lyrics to the song Jump Jim Crow (Sotiropoulos 20). But Rice never used “Jim Crow” as a racial slur – he often portrayed the character in black song and dance as a trickster figure (Sotiropoulos 21).

“Jim Crow,” however, eventually became an ethnic affront when the minstrelsy evolved into an overwhelmingly racist form of popular entertainment. In the decades before and after the Civil War, pro-slavery factions used minstrel shows as a means of expressing their opposition to abolitionist sentiment. As a result, the minstrelsy ended up spawning several caricatures that embodied bigoted misconceptions about blacks. “Jim Crow,” for example, was made to resemble “Sambo,” the “plantation darky” stereotype that was formed in order to give whites the assurance that blacks were contented with being plantation workers.

There were likewise instances when “Jim Crow” was depicted as “Zip Coon,” an urban buffoon who derided free blacks and therefore implied that blacks were unfit for freedom and urban life (Sotiropoulos 21). It was not until the 1880s that “Jim Crow” was associated with legal forms of discrimination against blacks. Many white Southerners greatly resented the Reconstruction (1863-1877) because the latter provided small possibilities for racial equality between blacks and whites.

The passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments emancipated blacks from slavery and turned them into American citizens with enforceable rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, meanwhile, guaranteed blacks admission to public facilities (Norgren and Nanda 46). Thus, at the end of the Reconstruction, many Southern whites sought to return blacks as close to slave status as possible. After the 1876 presidential elections, a new set of laws were created with the objective of segregating blacks and discriminating against them in every aspect of political, economic and social life.

The “Jim Crow” system reminded blacks of their inferiority to whites from the cradle to the grave (Norgren and Nanda 46). Several state constitutions passed in the South between 1890 and 1900 mandated literacy tests, property qualifications and poll taxes for electors, disenfranchising many black voters as a result (Earle 98). Certain laws also kept blacks separate from whites in public establishments such as schools, parks, hospitals, mass transportation, theaters and even courts (Norgren and Nanda 47). Nineteenth-century efforts to put an end to the “Jim Crow” system proved to be futile.

This was mainly because the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the laws that made up the “Jim Crow” system (Norgren and Nanda 47). The landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is generally believed to be responsible for the legitimization of the “Jim Crow” system. Homer A. Plessy, a light-skinned black man, was arrested in New Orleans after refusing to ride in a “blacks only” rail car. After he was convicted in Louisiana, he appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the segregation of blacks and whites was constitutional provided that both races received equal treatment (Earle 98).

Although racially discriminatory laws were already commonplace in the Antebellum Era and the Reconstruction, the “separate but equal” ruling of the Supreme Court in the aforementioned lawsuit legalized exclusion from juries, segregation, disenfranchisement, anti-miscegenation acts and lynching (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 157). In the process, blacks were transformed into second-class citizens – they enjoyed the same rights and privileges as whites, but only to a limited extent.

For instance, as long as a black man and a white man are riding the same train, the black man has no right to complain even if he was assigned to a dirty cabin while his white fellow passenger was ushered into a clean one. The law, after all, guaranteed blacks equality, but not integration, with whites. The “equality but not integration” philosophy of the “Jim Crow” system eventually became a justification for extralegal violence against blacks. In the 1890s, many cotton plantations in the South closed down due to the scarcity in slave labor and fierce competition from Egypt, India, California and the Southwest (Schultz 17).

Because cotton was the lifeblood of the Southern economy, the latter inevitably collapsed as a result. Once-wealthy plantation owners suddenly found themselves competing with emancipated blacks even over menial jobs such as sharecropping and construction. As the crisis went on, many whites started to view blacks with resentment and hostility – they accused the blacks of stealing jobs from them (Booker 167). Many whites were appalled that the blacks were passing themselves off as whites by competing with them for jobs and establishing their own institutions like churches and mutual aid societies.

Furthermore, the whites felt that the blacks were attempting to elevate themselves at their expense. It should no longer come as a surprise, therefore, if extralegal violence became the primary weapon in which the “Jim Crow” system was enforced. The threatened and desperate whites viewed brutality as the only means of “putting blacks in their place” (Harrell, Gaustad, Boles, Griffith, Miller and Woods 537). Angry white mobs stormed the Southern countryside and subjected every black person they could find to beatings, mutilation and even castration. Lynching, however, became increasingly widespread as the economic crisis went on.

During the 1890s, the average number of blacks that were lynched in the South was about two per week. So popular was lynching in the South that it became a public spectacle that drew large crowds, including women and children. There were even cases wherein refreshments were served and souvenirs, including the victim’s body parts, were sold or stolen (Harrell, Gaustad, Boles, Griffith, Miller and Woods 537). Many Southern whites overwhelmingly approved of the public lynching of blacks – they viewed the latter as a demonstration of the white community’s power and a means of preserving the racial order.

Moreover, blacks during the 1890s were depicted as criminal and savage “Brutes” who preyed on white women. Thus, lynching was also seen as a way of preserving the “racial purity” of the whites. Rebecca Latimer Felton, a women’s rights advocate and prohibitionist from Georgia, once claimed, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary” (Harrell, Gaustad, Boles, Griffith, Miller and Woods 537).

Because of the institutionalized racism and violence that was associated with the “Jim Crow” system, blacks had no choice but to live with it for almost 80 years. In the process, they had to accept the erroneous belief that whites were superior to them. It did not matter whether or not they truly believed this premise – defying the whites in any form could cost them their jobs, properties or even their lives. Stetson Kennedy (1959/1990), author of The Jim Crow Guide, claimed that the “Jim Crow” system was based on the following rationalizations: First, whites were superior to blacks in all important ways.

This superiority included, but was not limited to, intelligence, morality and civilized behavior. Second, sexual relations between blacks and whites would produce a mongrel that would destroy America. Simply put, intermarriage between the two races would “threaten” American racial “purity” (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 158). Third, sexual relations between blacks and whites would produce a mongrel which would destroy America. Biracial individuals were another “threat” to American racial “purity” because they served as living reminders of how blacks “corrupted” the cultural homogeneity of the whites.

Lastly, violence must be used to keep Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy if necessary. Discrimination, imprisonment under false charges and even lynching were acceptable as long as these safeguarded whites from black “brutes” (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 158). Kennedy (1959/1990) added that blacks had to observe these simple rules when conversing with whites: First, never assert or even intimate that a white person is telling a lie. Second, never impute dishonorable intentions to a white person. Third, never suggest that a white person is from an inferior class.

Fourth, never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence. Fifth, never curse a white person (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 157-158). Sixth, never laugh derisively at a white person. To do otherwise was to imply that he or she was of inferior character. Lastly, never comment upon the appearance of a white female. Such a gesture implied lust, which would eventually lead to rape (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 157-158). In order to show how racism was deeply entrenched in American society at the time of the “Jim Crow” system, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia provided the following etiquette standards:

A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a White man because it implied being socially equal. A black man was also not allowed to offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape. Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together. If blacks and whites did eat together, they must be kept separate from each other by some sort of partition and whites were to be served first (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 158). Under no circumstance was a Black male to offer to light the cigarette of a White female.

This was a gesture that implied intimacy. Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing. The whites considered this intimation to be very offensive (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 158). Blacks were introduced to whites, not the other way around. For example: “Mr. Peters (the white person), this is Charlie (the black person), that I spoke to you about. ” Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to blacks (i. e. , Mr. , Mrs. , Miss, Sir or Ma’am).

Instead, blacks were called by their first names (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 158). Blacks, on the other hand, had to use courtesy titles when referring to whites. Blacks were never allowed to call whites by their first names. If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the former had to seat in the back seat or the back of the truck. White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections (Schramm-Pate and Jeffries 158). By the beginning of the 20th century, the “Jim Crow” system had finally succeeded in its quest to implement racial segregation in the South.

Intermarriages were strictly forbidden, while schools, trains, streetcars, hotels, barbershops, restaurants and theaters had signs that indicated whether or not they accommodated blacks (Hill and Jones 41). Black workers were excluded from high-paying jobs and unions and were instead confined to low-paying jobs, thus creating a cheap labor pool which could be exploited by white entrepreneurs. Akin to the period of slavery, the “Jim Crow” system created a status quo in which blacks were accorded a lowly status simply because they were an “inferior” race (Hill and Jones 42).

In the early 20th century, education was probably the “Jim Crow” system’s most effective means of subjugating the blacks. Although public education was available to black children living in the South, the region had few effective schools. Many of the South’s black schoolchildren had no school buildings and met for class in churches, lodges, homes or barns, served by privies and without electricity – a trend which continued into the 1940s (Rose 251). Black teachers, meanwhile, had to make do with faulty castoffs from white schools (Rose 252). These conditions instilled in black children a lifelong aversion to learning.

Indeed, what is the point of going to school when little can be learned there? It would be much better for the children to just stay home and help their parents in the cotton fields. Another possible factor behind their lack of motivation to stay in school is the hegemonic belief that whites are superior to blacks. Growing up, black children in the South were constantly taught by their elders to be subservient to whites (Rose 254). As a result, they would be discouraged in pursuing an education, because even a highly-educated black person would still be a “slave” in the eyes of the whites.

But not all blacks opted to live with the “Jim Crow” system. Prior to the modern civil rights movement, many blacks have already protested against the “Jim Crow” system of domination. Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, for instance, openly criticized racial segregation in public facilities in the North during and after the period of slavery. From 1900 to 1906, meanwhile, many blacks in most major cities of the South staged boycotts against racial segregation in streetcars (Hill and Jones 43). Even black women participated in the struggle for racial equality in the South. Black journalist and newspaper editor Ida B.

Wells, for example, led major campaigns against lynching. During the last decade of the 19th century, many other black women formed local and national organizations that called for both the end of the “Jim Crow” system and for black women’s rights (Hill and Jones 43). Black women cannot be blamed for their extreme dedication to putting an end to the “Jim Crow” system. The latter had very detrimental effects on their political, economic and social status. Foremost among these negative upshots are the “Jezebel” and the “Matriarch stereotypes. The Jezebel image depicted black women as sexually promiscuous, lustful and immoral.

Historians argue that the Jezebel caricature was formed in order to rationalize the rape and forced breeding of black women – black women deserved to be subjected to sexual atrocities because they were “immoral” (West 98). The “Matriarch” image, meanwhile, presented black women as self-sufficient and independent women who have taken over the leadership role of men in the family. Although this stereotype is a possible survival strategy, it is not without a darker side. The “Matriarch” caricature was a probable scapegoat to the problems hounding blacks, such as poor academic performance of black youths and high incarceration rates.

Simply put, her unwillingness to conform to traditional female roles was blamed as the cause of lower moral values and poverty (West 99). Given these negative images that whites associated with black women at the height of the “Jim Crow” system, it should no longer come as a surprise if black women were politically, economically and socially marginalized during this period. Between 1900 and 1920, at least 2 million blacks migrated to the more industrialized North. Black women, however, were limited to domestic and agricultural work – mechanized steam laundries, meat slaughtering, packing houses and crab and peanut factories.

By the 1930s, about 60% of employed black women were engaged in domestic work (Parker 47). During the Great Depression, black women in the South were excluded from many stable job opportunities offered by the New Deal. Although black women in the North fared better, employers perceived them as expendable members of the labor force. For one, they received smaller wages than their white counterparts. In addition, they were the first to be laid off when an enterprise closed down (Parker 47). The period from 1909 to 1910 is considered as a watershed in the fight against the “Jim Crow” system.

It was during this time that one of the most important progressive black organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was formed. The primary goal of the NAACP was to discredit the legality of “Jim Crow” laws and practices. Meanwhile, its official organ, The Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, raised oppositional consciousness among blacks by challenging the ideology of white supremacy (Hill and Jones 43). The black protest movement became even more militant during the Great Depression. At the height of the latter, many black workers were either laid off from or denied work in favor of white workers.

Those who were able to find work, on the other hand, were paid very low wages and were subjected to abysmal working conditions. Thus, many progressive black groups engaged in grassroots organizing in order to fight racism in the government, corporations and labor unions. Furthermore, the scope of black activism during the Great Depression was no longer confined to the South – even blacks from the North started to organize themselves as well (Jackson 6). At the start of the Great Depression, blacks were excluded from most trade unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

But in 1933 and 1934, the United Mine Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union began to accept blacks into their respective folds. By 1935, the predominantly black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had already achieved recognition as a legitimate labor union. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union signed up thousands of blacks in the most antiunion parts of the South. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which was formed in 1935 as a splinter group of the AFL, mobilized black workers in steel, automobile and meatpacking industries (Jackson 8).

The issue of the “Jim Crow” system was temporarily set aside with the advent of World War II. Wartime labor demands gave black workers new employment opportunities, such as better wages, safe working conditions and security of tenure (Horton n. pag. ). With most white males fighting in the war, businesses had no choice but to tap into the country’s pool of black workers. As the country’s number of black workers was not enough for all of the nation’s enterprises, employers offered attractive compensation packages in order to attract as many employees as they could.

But whatever optimism blacks had during the war were shattered with the arrival of the white soldiers. In the postwar era, blacks returned to their old status as second-class citizens. They were once again subjected to segregation and low-paying jobs. The prevalence of the “Jim Crow” system in the South forced at least 1. 5 million blacks to migrate to other parts of the US during the 1940s and the early 1950s (Horton n. pag. ). But the postwar era was likewise the period that was characterized with the demise of the “Jim Crow” system. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v.

Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that racially segregated facilities were unconstitutional because these violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution (Jackson 530). The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown was an important victory for the anti-“Jim Crow” movement – the former nullified the “separate but equal” premise on which the ruling in Plessy was based (Fine 503). The blacks finally had a chance to attain equality with the whites that was based on actual integration with them. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown was met with violent reprisals from racist organizations.

Many white Southerners staunchly defended the system of racial privilege and even used violence and intimidation in order to forestall change. Various racist and terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the White Citizens’ Councils, resurfaced in order to spread fear among the populace. White politicians and other leaders, meanwhile, retaliated through very adamant statements of racist resistance. In the end, it was still the people who were at the losing end of this battle – public schools in Prince Edward County in central Virginia were kept closed for five years rather than undergo racial integration (Healey 226).

The blacks, however, were already tired of living in fear. A seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested and jailed in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 after she refused to give up her seat in the city bus to a white male passenger. Her arrest and detention sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott; a year-long boycott of the city’s bus lines that was led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King later founded the Civil Rights Movement, a protest movement that fought racism through peaceful street demonstrations (Healey 226).

Although its members experienced brutal repression and violence at the hands of the police and terrorist groups like the KKK, the Civil Rights Movement finally succeeded in putting an end to the “Jim Crow” system. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law which banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or gender. This directive was applicable to all public facilities including parks, municipal swimming pools and businesses, as well as to any program that received federal aid.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was soon followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned practices that had been used to prevent blacks from registering to vote, such as literacy tests and whites-only primaries (Healey 227). The existence of the “Jim Crow” system is one of the most shameful periods in American history. Just because the blacks were regarded as an inferior race, certain laws were created in order to segregate them and discriminate against them in every aspect of political, economic and social life. Worse, the enforcement of these laws through violence was even encouraged.

Although the blacks were supposedly equal to the whites, this equality existed as long as they did interact with each other. It would be fair to say, therefore, that the black protest movements against the “Jim Crow” system added credibility to the American value of egalitarianism. If not for the black activists who fought against racism, the said value would only be applicable to the whites even to this day. The US would have no right to parade itself as the bastion of democracy and human rights. After all, how can it say that it is a champion of democracy and human rights if racism was rampant in its own backyard?

Works Cited Booker, Christopher Brian. “I Will Wear No Chain! ” A Social History of African- American Males. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. Carlisle, Rodney P. , and J. Geoffrey Golson. Colonial America from the Settlement to the Revolution. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Earle, Jonathan Halperin. The Routledge Atlas of African-American History. New York: Routledge, 2000. Fine, Michelle. “The Power of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision: Theorizing Threats to Sustainability. ” American Psychologist September 2004: 59. Apollo Library. EBSCO.

University of Phoenix Library. 12 April 2009 <http://swtuop. museglobal. com/muse/servlet/MusePeer>. Harrell, David Edwin, Edwin S. Gaustad, John B. Boles, Sally Foreman Griffith, Randall M. Miller, and Randall Bennett Woods. Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People, Volume 2: From 1865. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005. Healey, Joseph F. Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. 4th ed. London: Pine Forge Press, 2005. Hill, Herbert, and James E. Jones. Race in America: The Struggle for Equality.

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993. Horton, Lois E. A History of the African American People: The History, Traditions & Culture of African Americans. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. Jackson, Walter A. Gunnar Myrdal and America’s Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism, 1938-1987. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994. Jackson, John P. “The Scientific Attack on Brown v. Board of Education, 1954-1964. ” American Psychologist September 2004: 59. Apollo Library. EBSCO. University of Phoenix Library. 11 April 2009 <http://swtuop. museglobal.

com/muse/servlet/MusePeer>. Norgren, Jill, and Serena Nanda. American Cultural Pluralism and Law. 3rd ed. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. Parker, Patricia Sue. Race, Gender, and Leadership: Re-envisioning Organizational Leadership from the Perspectives of African American Women Executives. New York: Routledge, 2006. Rose, Anne C. “The Discovery of Southern Childhoods: Psychology and the Transformation of Schooling in the Jim Crow South. ” History of Psychology 2007: 10. Apollo Library. EBSCO. University of Phoenix Library.

10 April 2009 <http://swtuop.museglobal. com/muse/servlet/MusePeer>. Schramm-Pate, Susan, and Rhonda Baynes Jeffries. Grappling with Diversity: Readings on Civil Rights Pedagogy and Critical Multiculturalism. London: SUNY Press, 2008. Schultz, Mark. The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Sotiropoulos, Karen. Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. West, Caroline Marie. Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black and Blue. New York: Haworth Press, 2003.


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