Jim Crow Is Watching

This essay was published in Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America in 2006.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

AT THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR, THE 13TH CONSTITUTIONAL Amendment outlawed slavery. In the next few years, the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed African Americans the full rights of citizenship. The decade of Reconstruction brought Blacks into public life and public office across the South. Still, even a bloody defeat on the battlefield and the long arm of Congress couldn’t loosen the grip of white power for very long.

            By 1877, corrupt politicians and racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan had begun to intimidate Blacks into surrendering their hard-won equality. Lynch mobs carried out a bloody campaign of vigilante justice [...]. Whites regained their former domination of local and state governments. They began passing laws that openly favored Whites and redefined Blacks as second-class citizens. The segregation laws acquired the name “Jim Crow” from a popular blackface minstrel song.

            A rigid barrier between the races was enforced by separate schools, restrooms, waiting rooms, drinking fountains and seating areas in movie theaters and on trains and buses. Commercial facilities such as restaurants and Laundromats could refuse service to Blacks altogether. In addition, poll taxes and other measures limited black participation in elections. By denying African Americans educational, economic and political opportunities, these laws instituted a social system that was closer to slavery than to true freedom.

            The Jim Crow system survived a serious legal challenge in 1896. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the use of separate facilities as long as they were equal. In practice, of course, the facilities were rarely equal. It would take another 60 years, however, for the courts to declare separate facilities inherently unequal. Antilynching campaigns and other national movements in the early 1900s focused national attention on injustices in the South. But not until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s was the Jim Crow system dismantled and replaced with fair and impartial laws.

            The following are some examples of Jim Crow laws and provisions:

  • That if any Negro, mulatto, or other person of color shall intrude himself into … any railroad car or other public vehicle set apart for the exclusive accommodation of white people, he shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to stand in pillory for one hour, or be whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes, or both, at the discretion of the jury. (Florida, 1865)
  • No property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people. (Code of Ethics, Real Estate Board of Washington, D.C., 1948)
  • It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation engaged in the business of cotton textile manufacturing in this state to allow or permit operatives, help and labor of the different races to labor and work together within the same room, or to use the same doors of entrance and exit at the same time, or to use the same stair-way and windows at the same time, or to use at any time the same lavatories, toilets, drinking-water buckets, pails, cups, dippers, or glasses. (South Carolina, 1950s)
  • It shall be unlawful for white and colored persons to play together in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, pool, billiards, softball, basketball, football, golf, track, and at swimming pools or in any athletic contest. (Montgomery, Ala., 1958)
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Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Reread the following sentence: “Still, even a bloody defeat on the battlefield and the long arm of Congress couldn’t loosen the grip of white power for very long.” What bloody defeat is the author referencing? Put this sentence into your own words.
    The North defeating the South in the Civil War; the North won the Civil War and Congress passed constitutional amendments to guarantee African Americans the same rights as whites, but other things began to happen that undermined these advancements and kept white people in power.
  2. Question
    Reread the sentence that begins, “By 1877.” What does “surrendering” mean? Why might the author have chosen this word instead of another that means something similar?
    Surrendering means to turn over power or control to another. This word is frequently used in war contexts; one army surrenders to another. It also elicits an image of one group having power over another, with a weaker group having no other choice and being forced to give up power.
  3. Question
    Describe the Jim Crow system, including how it was challenged and eventually “dismantled.”
    The Jim Crow system set up separate facilities for white and black people. The system was challenged in Plessy v. Ferguson, but the Supreme Court said the system was legal, as long as the separate facilities were equal. The civil rights movement put an end to the Jim Crow laws.
  4. Question
    Put two of the examples of Jim Crow laws into your own words.
    Answers will vary.
Reveal Answers