After the American Civil War concluded and slavery was abolished, black Americans were finally able to live without being forced to work for no pay. However, this did not mean they were fully free. Local and state governments, especially in the South, almost immediately began imposing laws designed to limit the freedom of former slaves and their children. These were known as Jim Crow laws, which were a series of statutes designed to replace slavery with a system that would continue to oppress African Americans.
What Are Jim Crow Laws?
Jim Crow laws were named after a black minstrel show character. Minstrel shows were performances in which white actors and musicians would paint their faces pitch black and perform routines specifically mocking African Americans.
These laws were designed to relegate black people to second-class citizens status. They denied them the right to vote, hold certain jobs, obtain education. The measures also upheld a pervasive system of racial segregation that forced black Americans to eat in different sections of restaurants, use separate bathrooms and water fountains, and even use separate entrances to buildings.
The Black Codes
The beginnings of Jim Crow laws can be traced back to early 1865 after the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed. These laws determined how and where former slaves could work and how much they could be paid. They prevented black people from voting and controlled where they could live and travel.
These laws were intended to ensure that black people always remained behind white people when it comes to freedom and wealth. They essentially created a separate justice system for whites and blacks in which black prisoners were treated as slaves. Black offenders received longer sentences than white offenders and were punished more harshly in prison.
The Expansion of Jim Crow
While the first black codes were problematic, these laws were not prevalent in big cities in the South in the early 1880s. Black people enjoyed more freedom in these cities, so many began moving to these areas. Unfortunately, white residents responded by pushing for more laws to limit freedoms for the African Americans who relocated, which resulted in a widespread expansion of Jim Crow in the South.
During this time period, laws were created barring black people from entering public parks and expanding segregation in public pools, hospitals, buses, elevators, and even amusement parks. The measures also prevented African Americans from living in white neighborhoods.
The 20th Century
In the early 1900s, Jim Crow grew from being a system of laws to a widespread anti-black sentiment. White supremacy groups arose to harass and terrorize African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups carried out lynchings against black people and even white Republicans who fought for equality.
Race riots broke out across the country. About 25 occurred over many months in 1919. This period is known as the “Red Summer.” These riots were a response against the increase in lynchings and other racially motivated violence.
Another insidious law designed to curb economic growth for black Americans was the practice of redlining, which prevented them from getting mortgages for homes in certain neighborhoods. It greatly restricted the areas in which black people could live and greatly diminished the ability of African Americans to build wealth and pass it on to their children.
In this way, they ensured that white Americans would have a significant economic advantage over blacks in the years to come. Indeed, it is one of the main reasons for the economic disparities between African Americans and whites that is present today.
The End of Jim Crow
The end of Jim Crow laws was a long and arduous process. The Civil Rights movement fought for decades to stop the oppression that these laws caused. Many leaders of the movement worked to bring about the removal of these measures. There were several historical events that serve as landmarks on the way to the eventual destruction of the Jim Crow system.
President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military in 1954, which meant black soldiers could serve with white soldiers. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregating schools was unconstitutional. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law. This legislation ended all the laws that required segregation in the entire country. The 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to local and state laws designed to stop black people from voting.
The Jim Crow era ensured that the legacy of slavery persisted even though the practice had been made illegal. Even though these laws have been removed, the effects are still felt by many African Americans to this day.