Slavery ended in the United States in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The period that followed the Civil War - Reconstruction - was characterized by some gains for African Americans but was ultimately a failure. It provided them no lasting economic, political, and social equality. The Jim Crow laws implemented in the late 19th century rendered African Americans second-class citizens, discriminated against in virtually all areas of life and only marginally better off than when they were slaves.
White supremacist Southern governments, itching to reassert their conception of the ideal social/racial hierarchy, were initially hamstrung by Radical Republican efforts in the 1860s and 1870s to limit their power and assert that of the federal government, as well as protect African Americans. For a brief period of time, African Americans, now citizens thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment and (putatively) possessing the right to vote thanks to the Fifteenth Amendment, became politically active by exercising the franchise, forming clubs and associations, and even running for and winning office.
Unfortunately, in 1877 Reconstruction came to an end. Northerners had begun to tire of the costs and efforts associated with controlling the South, Southern “Redeemer” politicians had begun to creep back in, and the presidential election of 1876 necessitated a compromise between Democrats in the South and Republicans in the North. Thus, the military withdrew from the South, state legislatures reverted to being solidly white supremacist, and laws began to pop up in the Southern states that would limit the civil liberties and civil rights of the freedmen.
This was the context in which the Jim Crow laws were passed. Named for a black character in popular minstrel shows, these laws of the 1880s and 1890s implemented almost complete racial segregation. Blacks and whites in the South did not attend the same schools, sit in the same parts of trains or buses, serve on juries together, drink from the same water fountains, sit at the same lunch counter, use the same restrooms, work at the same jobs, or marry each other. The laws did not just focus on the macro, however; they became increasingly micro in their desire to separate the races. Some of the most conspicuous examples include: “No colored barber shall serve as a barber (to) white girls or women (Georgia)”; “The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons (Georgia)”; “The state librarian is directed to fit up and maintain a separate place for the use of the colored people who may come to the library for the purpose of reading books or periodicals (North Carolina).” The right to vote was also practically eradicated by poll taxes, literacy tests, the white primary, and the grandfather clause.
The Supreme Court legitimized segregation in the court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), stating that as long as conditions for blacks and whites were “separate but equal” they were constitutional. This ruling was not overturned until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.
Jim Crow did not just manifest itself in laws but also in unstated rules and norms of behavior. African Americans were supposed to be deferential towards whites; they were not supposed to assert themselves or push back against these abuses. Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University writes, “The Jim Crow laws and system of etiquette were undergirded by violence, real and threatened. Blacks who violated Jim Crow norms, for example, drinking from the white water fountain or trying to vote, risked their homes, their jobs, even their lives. Whites could physically beat blacks with impunity. Blacks had little legal recourse against these assaults because the Jim Crow criminal justice system was all-white: police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and prison officials. Violence was instrumental for Jim Crow. It was a method of social control. The most extreme forms of Jim Crow violence were lynchings.”
The Jim Crow laws were chipped away at in the 1950s and 1960s due to the actions of Civil Rights Movement activists. Boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience caught the nation’s attention by showcasing the racial separation in the country. World War II had already cast into light the absurdity and hypocrisy of America’s racial system, and now regular men and women were standing up for their rights for all the country (and world) to see.
The United States government finally began to act as well. The Supreme Court desegregated schools in Brown as well as interstate transportation. President Johnson signed into law the epochal Civil Rights Act of 1964, eradicating segregation: “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Poll taxes and literacy tests were swept away and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 corrected the abuses against black voters in the South.
By the late 1960s, segregation was officially a thing of the past. However, its legacies and norms still haunt and decimate the African American community. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow shows how in the 2000s, the criminal justice system and mass incarceration of black men have created a caste system and a situation of political, economic, and social control not unlike the Jim Crow laws.