The development of policies and practices that are referred to as Jim Crow began after the ending of slavery in America. The derogatory stereotyping of Black people had gone public as early as the 1820s with Thomas Rice using “black face” and various other examples of harmful caricature. Nevertheless, the term Jim Crow became most popular after the former Confederates began passing laws that segregated Black people and treated them differently, based upon the racial stereotypes that were highlighted by the “Jim Crow” performers.
As enslaved Africans, they had been considered property rather than persons. They were therefore not legally addressed as if they had civil or human rights. It was the Fourteenth Amendment that had declared them to be citizens and entitled to the same rights and treatment as other citizens. Over the years, that amendment served as the foundation for the civil rights acts of 1866, 1870, and 1875. Because of subsequent Supreme Court decisions, starting with Plessey vs. Ferguson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was based upon the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.
As a part of the effort to undo the Reconstruction measures of the 1860s and 1870s, law-makers in the south began passing laws that were designed to reduce Black people to something less than citizens. In time, the media began referring to them as second-class citizens. These were the Jim Crow laws.
Jim Crow laws provided for the racial segregation of people using public transportation, frequenting public businesses, utilizing public facilities and spaces, in public schools, renting or buying houses, and even serving in the military. Although churches were private, segregation practices applied to them as well. Hand in hand with racial segregation, racial discrimination was the order of the day. As a matter of fact, segregation was used as the mechanism to best facilitate discrimination. It applied to the funding of public educational institutions, salaries or wages on the job, membership in labor unions, and political parties. Between the implementation of “the Mississippi Plan” in 1890 and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, virtually everything was subject to Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. It defined “the Southern Way of Life,” but was practiced in many instances across the country. It was so massive and entrenched until it often appeared that Black people were completely compliant or submissive.
That, of course, was not the case. A good part of Black history has to include setting the record straight on that score.
JIM CROW IN PUBLIC
One can begin with Jim Crow in public transportation. Enter Homer Plessy, a Louisiana citizen who by local standards was considered Black and therefore could not ride in the same train cars as white people. He defied Louisiana’s segregation law and was arrested for riding in the white car. Although he lost the case, he was resisting the Jim Crow segregation law of the state. Sixty years later, first Claudette Colvin and then Rosa Parks defied the bus segregation law in Birmingham, Alabama. This time, however, a year-long bus boycott took place, resulting in the dropping of the segregationist policy. Despite that Alabama victory, however, racial segregation continued to be practiced across the south. It took the massive campaigns led by supporters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that were called “Freedom Riders” to finally end the practice on buses, trains, and planes operating in interstate commerce. That was further solidified by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Black history has to keep reminding America that it was Black resistance that led to the changes. The ugly days of segregation and the poor or non-existent facilities that were available to Black customers must also not go unmentioned merely because now some white adults do not want their off-spring to realize how cruel, unjust, and immoral much of white America has been when it comes to race and ethnicity.
A second part of that history is Jim Crow’s manifestation of public education. During the period of slavery, it had been against the law to teach Black people to read and write. Because of the prohibition, there was a burning desire on the part of many Black people to gain an education after the Civil War. Newly-elected Black leaders helped draft Constitutions and write laws that established “public” schools to which Black citizens could attend. This was during the period of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Once white ex-Confederates re-gained control of state governments, however, they proceeded to establish racially segregated schools. Thus, from then until the 1950s and later, the public schools were racially separate in terms of students, curricula, facilities, calendars, and funding. From Plessey vs. Ferguson (1896) until Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), there was solid Jim Crow public education.
As was the case with public transportation, Black people resisted the condition of Jim Crow education wherein Black schools were always separate and never equal. Very often the story begins with the Brown vs. Education case that made it to the Supreme Court and was decided in 1954. The case was based on a group of complaints that had been combined under the brilliant leadership of Thurgood Marshall. The argument was that Black children were being denied their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because the school which they were required to attend were inferior. The Supreme Court agreed with them and went even further, declaring that schools that were separate were inherently unequal. This outlawed racial segregation in the public schools.
This Black resistance, this fight, was against discrimination as it was heightened under segregation. It existed at every level, from kindergarten to post graduate. It was witnessed in the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock’s Central High School. It was witnessed in New Orleans with the lone Black child, Ruby Bridges, facing the mob of angry white citizens. It was witnessed in numerous other elementary and secondary schools from Kansas to Florida, from Maryland to Texas. It even stretched into places like Boston, Massachusetts, as the federal courts ordered bussing to achieve meaningful desegregation. Across the country, Black children were subjected to hostile environments as they resisted Jim Crow public schooling. The legal struggle in Mississippi ended with the Alexander vs. Holmes County decision in 1969. The war had ended, but battles continued on many campuses for the next 40 years.
At the other end of the system, resistance involved college students such as James Meredith in Mississippi, Autherine Lucy in Alabama, Cleve McDowell at the Ole Miss Law School, and Heman M. Sweatt at the University of Texas law school, all of whom were admitted to previously all-white institutions. Meanwhile, individuals, including Clyde Kennard, who was arrested and imprisoned in penitentiary on trumped-up charges for trying to attend the University of Southern Mississippi; Johnny Frazier; and Medgar Evers were denied admission to these segregated citadels.
The principles that have been applied in Brown vs. the Board of Education were brought to the forefront in the colleges and universities case, Adam vs. Richardson. In this case, Kenneth Adams, a student in Rankin County, Mississippi, complained, along with other similarly situated students, that the historically Black public institutions were being denied their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The accused states, including Mississippi, were ordered to develop plans that would desegregate their colleges and universities. Based upon Mississippi’s slow and inadequate response, a group of citizens filed what became known as Ayers vs. Waller. They sought to end racial discrimination in the system of higher education. They, too, were resisting Jim Crow in the area of higher education.
In every way that the proponents of Jim Crow tried to preserve the practice, Black resisters sought ways and means to join the battle. Black history is charged with making these exposures and alerting people that the struggle continues.
A third part of the ongoing resistance is that against Jim Crow in the area of housing. In the slave-holding states, there were the “big houses” of the plantation owner and “the quarters,” where the workers lived. In the towns and cities, Black people, whether enslaved or free, lived in alleys and specific settlements. Once slavery ended, and particularly as Black people moved into large urban areas, neighborhood covenants and local practices confined Black people to certain areas, which as a result of crowdedness and official neglect soon became slums or ghettoes. That was and that is Jim Crow.
In many places in the south, west, and midwest, “sundown towns” were established. These were towns where Black people could work, but were not able to have a dwelling place. They often could not purchase goods and services and had to be out of town by sunset. This was Jim Crow.
In later years, banks and real estate agencies worked hand in hand to prevent Black people from being able to buy homes in certain areas. Many banks used a practice called “Red-Lining” whereby they refused low-interest loans to home buyers. Even the federal government, through its GI loan programs, promoted housing segregation, enabling the creation of all-white suburbs around the country. Zoning and housing ordinances also continue to relegate Black people to certain areas. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, there were officially segregated public apartment complexes in Waskom, Texas, as late as the 1980s. Needless to say, unofficially, there are still such complexes in perhaps every state. That, too, is a reflection of Jim Crow.
Black people continue to resist this Jim Crow through lawsuits and through media exposure. Like the children referenced above who desegregated the public schools, middle- and upper-income Black families continue to move into otherwise white neighborhoods, despite the potential hostile receptions. It shows that in many cases the Jim Crow mentality is not limited to any particular class of white society.
This brings us to Jim Crow in the sphere of employment and economics. As quietly as it is kept, many Constitutions were written and laws were enacted that were designed to bar Black people from entering certain professions. For an example, in order to enter many law or medical schools, an applicant had to have the endorsement of a certain number of such practicing professionals who were alumni of the institution. The same was true for entry into trade apprenticeship programs. Such was particularly true in the southern and border states.
In areas where labor unions began developing, Black workers were often not accepted as members. This froze them out of jobs covered by the unions. They, thus, had to remain unemployed, accept lower wages, and risk attacks from white union workers since they were considered “scab” workers.
Whether north or south, Black people most often were not paid the same salaries as were white workers doing the same type of work. It may be noteworthy that when minimum wage proposals were being considered as late as the Eisenhower administration, the law did not cover workers who chopped cotton, more than 90% of them were Black. Historically, many of the jobs that were held by Black people have been the lowest paying and/or not subject to minimum wage laws.
In these areas of Jim Crow, Black people have generally resisted most often through outward migration. Some, such as Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, have led efforts to establish and increase the number of Black business owners. Still, others have resisted in more direct ways. One noted case was the 1919 cotton pickers’ protest in Elaine, Arkansas. Although the organized protest sparked a race riot, it showed the willingness of Black workers to resist that form of economic Jim Crow. There were rumors and threats of such strikes during the 1960s in the areas of Bolivar and Sunflower counties in Mississippi. These, too, were parts of an ongoing struggle, punctuated by Martin Luther King’s support of the garbage workers strike in Memphis in 1968 and his planned Poor Peoples’ March that same year. Even as the twenty first century ages, the fight against economic Jim Crow is proving to be a most difficult and enduring struggle.
Finally, political Jim Crow was most prominent during the last years of Reconstruction. Southern legislatures passed laws that generally did not mention the word race, but were geared at disfranchising Black voters. They included poll tax, literacy, civic, morals, and ancestry provisions that could and were in fact used against Black voters in such ways as to reduce them from being a majority in many areas to bring almost non-existent. This drastic reduction occurred in less than 20 years. Many of the southern states held primary elections that excluded Black candidates and voters. These examples of legalized Jim Crow were buttressed by fraud in the acceptance of ballots and counting of the votes, by KKK and other groups rallying and burning of crosses as elections approached, and by threats and overt terrorism in the vicinity of polling places themselves. One of the most graphic descriptions of such Jim Crow political actions has been documented in the book, “A History of Bolivar County” by Florence Sillers, which is apparently a proud confession of white supremacy in the 1890–1950 period.
Black people resisted those actions through lawsuits, such as Williams vs. Mississippi in 1898; through political education classes and protests, such as those sponsored by the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee; through the lobbying of congress and state legislatures to pass voting rights laws; through the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its challenging the all-white Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention; through the organizing of Black political conventions, such as the 1972 Gary, Indiana, convention and similar efforts by the Republic of New Afrika and the Universal Negro Improvement Association; and by seeking the condemnation of United Nations.
More than a few Black history scholars/speakers have rightly suggested that the Black experience in America has been a story of resistance at every turn. Black educators, journalists and others must continue to shine a light on the real truths of Black history. The spirit of Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, and other kindred souls must live on through our efforts today and tomorrow. The mental, intellectual, and psychological battle can and must be engaged day after day, year after year because there are so many people to be reached and so much material to cover.