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Jim Crow Laws

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Date: 2021
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,264 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1140L

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Jim Crow laws were a series of laws enacted in the American South after the Civil War (1861–1865). The laws were a way for whites to maintain power over the newly free Black population. After the war, Congress passed several Constitutional amendments to end slavery and give Africans Americans citizenship and the right to vote. However, in many places, white leaders found a way to ignore these amendments. Instead, they passed laws designed to keep segregation and discrimination legal.

These Jim Crow laws denied Black Americans their rights and maintained a system of oppression for nearly a century. The laws kept African Americans in inferior social, financial, and legal positions. They also established a segregated society, forcing Black Americans to use separate public facilities, schools, housing, churches, and transportation. The laws also banned intermarriage and cohabitation by people of different races. The Jim Crow laws were eventually overturned by the efforts of the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • What was the main purpose of the Jim Crow laws?
  • What tactics did Southern whites create and implement to prevent Black people from voting? Do you see any parallels to this in the modern day?
  • Which Supreme Court case ordered the desegregation of schools?


The name Jim Crow came from the song “Jump Jim Crow,” which was performed in minstrel shows by a white man named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice (1808–1860). The shows were very popular during the 1830s and 1840s. Eventually, the name Jim Crow was used to describe laws that kept African Americans from receiving their constitutional rights. These laws were not the only ways white people oppressed Black Americans. Acts of violence organized by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups helped ensure that African Americans remained disadvantaged.

The Reconstruction Period

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. The amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. In 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment established that states could not make laws that reduced the rights of any US citizen. In 1870, the United States ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote. However, many Southern states did not enforce these amendments. Rather, Southern whites continued to ignore the rights of Black Americans and harassed and bullied them instead. Since Southern police, sheriffs, and judges were white, Black victims had nowhere to turn for justice.

The Laws

States in the South used different methods to keep from following the constructional amendments. One of the ways they did this was to invent ways to stop African Americans from qualifying to vote. For example, states require African Americans to pay poll taxes to register to vote. However, many Black people were poor and could not afford these taxes. Another ploy was requiring voters to prove they could read and write. If a person could not provide proof, they would have to take a literacy test. Typically, the test would be difficult or impossible for anyone to pass, even those with a basic education. For example, Louisiana used a test containing thirty complicated questions that had to be answered within ten minutes. If a person missed or skipped even one question, they would fail the test. While literacy tests sometimes were given to poor whites, they were always required of Blacks.

Immediately after the end of the Civil War, Southern whites also passed a series of local laws called Black codes. The laws were meant to look like they gave Blacks more freedom, but they contained sections that kept African Americans from achieving true equality. Some of the laws forced Black workers to get yearly written proof of employment, or face arrest. Some laws made Blacks pay a fee if they wanted to work in any job other than servant or farmer. Other Black codes made it illegal for Black Americans to serve on juries, testify against white defendants, or join the military. In 1866, the federal government forced many of the Black codes to be repealed. However, after Reconstruction ended in 1877, US military forces left the South. Many of the black codes were put back into place and many new laws were added.

Jim Crow Laws A young boy drinks from a water fountain marked for “colored” users on the county courthouse lawn in Halifax, North Carolina, in April 1938. A young boy drinks from a water fountain marked for “colored” users on the county courthouse lawn in Halifax, North Carolina, in April 1938. © John Vacha/FPG/Getty Images.

Social Control

In addition to the Jim Crow laws, special etiquette was required to prevent any type of social equality. A Black man would always be called by his first name but had to address a white man with the title “Mister.” Black men had to be particularly careful around white women, as not to seem like they were flirting with them. An African American man whose appearance or actions drew attention was likely to be beaten, tortured, and even murdered. Laughing at or arguing with a white person also could be dangerous because the oppressive white community expected African Americans to obey and respect it.

The Courts

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 citizens of all races the right to access transportation, hotel accommodations, theaters, and other public places. However, it had little effect in places where Jim Crow laws existed. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the act was unconstitutional. The Court said the Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to be applied to private individuals who discriminated against others. It said that states had the right to make their own laws regarding discrimination. However, by this time, some states were establishing “separate but equal” facilities and ignoring the civil rights of African Americans.

In 1896, the US Supreme Court decided the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in which the Court refused to overturn a Jim Crow law requiring separate train cars for white and black passengers. The Court reasoned that the Constitution applied only to government actions not private citizens. As a result, the Court ruled the law addressed a social and not a political question of equality. Only one justice, John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911), voted against the decision.

In 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that separate public schools for different races were inherently unequal. The ruling struck down Plessy v. Ferguson and t Court ordered that school desegregation begin immediately. At this time, the civil rights movement was at its height. Both black and white participants used acts of nonviolent civil disobedience such as demonstrations, protests, petitions, and lawsuits to help gain equal rights for African Americans. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination illegal in public places and in employment practices. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned states from prohibiting Black Americans from voting. These acts also brought an end to Jim Crow laws across the United States.

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Words to Know

Brown v. Board of Education
The Supreme Court case in which Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned, with the justices declaring that separate facilities were by nature unequal.
civil rights movement
The movement in the United States to gain equal rights for African Americans.
Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
A white supremacist society organized in the South after the Civil War to ensure domination over former slaves.
minstrel show
A show in which white actors appeared in blackface and performed exaggerated dialect and song-and-dance to ridicule African Americans, who they depicted as carefree, lazy, and ignorant.
Plessy v. Ferguson
A Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities did not violate the Constitution.
The period in the United States from 1865 to 1877 following the Civil War in which the North assisted Southerners and former slaves in rebuilding their lives.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|TDFDKV971734697