Often, U.S. politics turn to the subject of race. Sometimes the term “Jim Crow” will be mentioned. I was fortunate enough to grow up after this legal system and social practice was no longer in effect. My parents, however, grew up in the Jim Crow South. My understanding of the term I have taken for granted. When my children ask me, “Mom, who was Jim Crow?” I am at a loss as to how to answer that question. I know what the laws were but I don’t know anything about the person for whom they are named after.
The laws and social customs were restrictive to Black Americans. The moniker used to refer to this particular set of laws is derived from a white American who was an actor during the 1830s. His stage name, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice was, perhaps, less known than the character, “Jim Crow”, that he made famous with his stage performances.
The Jim Crow character was a part of minstrel shows and portrayed a black slave who was clumsy and stupid. Not a flattering image. Rice claimed to have been inspired to create the character when he saw an old black man sing a song in Louisville, Kentucky. The name of that song… “Jump Jim Crow”. With blackface stage makeup, silly jokes and an insulting caricature impersonation of an American slave stereotype, Jim Crow was born.
As the show traveled around the United States, it gained popularity. Soon, the name “Jim Crow” became a derogatory slang term used to refer to people of color. And, even when the hey-day of minstrel shows was over, the name “Jim Crow” lived on and eventually became the phrase to use when referring to all of the laws that oppressed Black Americans after Reconstruction.
The Civil War culminated with the Emancipation Proclamation and Fourteenth Amendment, the great equalizers where U.S. law is concerned. However, in practice, this created a society that lived “separate but equal”, the Jim Crow laws being the great separator.
Jim Crow laws were patterned after the “Black Codes” of 1800-1866 which restricted the civil liberties and civil rights of Black Americans.
These laws made it possible to discriminate against Black Americans as well as oppress and restrict them. The voting rights of Black Americans were interfered with by Southern states requiring literacy tests or creating grandfather clauses. If a Black American’s grandfather had not had the right to vote, then neither could he vote. Businesses openly segregated according to race as did public schools.
The practice and philosophy of segregationism was put to the test in the famous 1896 Supreme Court case “Plessy vs. Ferguson”. The ruling of the Court upheld Louisiana’s right to segregate railroad passengers according to race. This affected American society widely with segregation being instituted even down to public water fountains. And common practice was to create sub-standard facilities for Black Americans. This was the law of the land until 1954 when the Supreme Court heard “Brown vs. Board of Education” when it was ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Although 1954 marked an important turning point for the rights of Black Americans where education was concerned, it would take another decade and years of action, organizing, civil disobedience, and social unrest before voting rights protection would be addressed. With 1964’s “Civil Rights Act” and 1965’s “Voting Rights Act”, the legal legacy of Jim Crow was finally dead along with legal institutional discrimination.
Unfortunately, despite the numbers of laws on the books regarding equality and protection regardless of race, the legacy of Jim Crow still exists within the minds and hearts of many. And this philosophy is, perhaps, most visible in the Deep South. And, unfortunately, there is no law which can govern the ignorance which exists in the hearts and minds of people who still want to live a Jim Crow attitude.