The enforcement of Jim Crow laws played a significant role in the lives of African Americans in the United States, severely damaging the outcomes of their fight for racial equality. For almost a century, the segregation of people by their race was upheld by the government, and early attempts to combat injustice were hindered. Only in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was able to enact major political change; however, the effects of Jim Crow laws are visible to this day, causing the appearance of new pro-equality movements.
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The development of Jim Crow laws followed the Reconstruction period during which the country was rebuilding itself from the outcomes of the Civil War (Fremon 12). In 1866, the Civil Rights Act became a major improvement that united all people living in the United States. However, the history of slavery and racism prevailed throughout the country, and the introduced policies enacted change on paper while being ineffective in real life. Jim Crow laws and their enduring existence in the state and local territories have been impacting racial segregation and inequality to this day.
Nature of the Problem
The central concept that Jim Crow laws introduced to the people of the U.S. is segregation. While slavery was abolished by the government with the Civil Rights Act, black people did not experience equality after the conflict ended. It should be noted that, for a brief period in the 1860s, black people were able to vote and act as fully recognized citizens of America. Thus, the political sphere of the country changed with people of color (POC) gaining some political power (Fremon 12). Black people experienced major pushback, encountering barriers for work, education, and land ownership, and racial violence was high in areas where former fighters lived. Nonetheless, some improvements were being made to suppress such racist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), although they were not particularly useful.
The path to equality was disrupted in the 1870s after the former Confederate States enacted Jim Crow laws with the help of the national Democratic Party. White people who represented the party utilized violence against black people and induced fear into the public, contributing to racial conflicts and proposing segregation. The development of segregation-based laws was founded on the sentiments expressed by these politicians and other white Americans who continued to have racist beliefs. It should be noted, that the title of the laws appeared soon after they had become active in some states.
In 1892, The New York Times published a small news story which stated that “the Supreme Court yesterday declared constitutional the law … known as the ‘Jim Crow’ law” (“Louisiana’s ‘Jim Crow’ Law Valid”). Thus, the name was attributed to the law almost instantly which signifies the understanding of segregation’s supposed benefits as unrealistic. These laws affected transportation, services, jobs, courts, politics, and voting, permanently separating black people from the whites and making their newly acquired rights superficial.
Notable Actions of the Group
After Jim Crow laws were enacted, people attempted to overrule the regulations using politics. In 1875, for example, the new Civil Rights Act was introduced, but it did not affect the situation in the country (Klarman 40). Next, the segregation enforced on the railroad, where black people had to sit in different cars from white people was challenged. However, this complaint only furthered the cause of Jim Crow laws and lead to the establishment of the “separate but equal” concept as the model of American politics (Higginbotham 88). This ideology persisted until World War II, during which black people contributed to the country’s military actions while serving in segregated units. It is possible that the new sentiments reignited the movement for equality and changed the political notions of the public.
In 1948, the first attempt at official desegregation was made by U.S. President Truman. He issued an executive order to eliminate discrimination in the military (Fremon 76). The movement led by people was also rejuvenated, as people became more active in challenging legal restrictions in courts and public places. The segregation of public facilities, for instance, was addressed by the POC and their supporters through staged protests and sit-ins (Biggs and Andrews 426).
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Civil disobedience and non-violence introduced by Martin Luther King Jr. were the main actions chosen by the protesters (Higginbotham 125). The actions of Rosa Parks who did not give up a seat to a white man on the bus became a catalyst for the movement of protests (Higginbotham 125). Although not the first recorded act of disobedience, this event was chosen as a representative of all further actions undertaken by the Civil Rights Movement. The protests ultimately led to the desegregation of public transport.
Legal action had begun producing notable results in 1954 when the U.S. Congress overruled the previously established “separate but equal” concept. According to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution “prohibits states from segregating public school students on the basis of race.” After the previously enforced law was overturned, other attempts to desegregate various facilities were made.
Protest Strategies and Rhetoric
As is mentioned above, peaceful protests and sit-ins became the basis of all the Civil Rights Movement’s actions. This approach was introduced by one of the leading and most recognized activists, Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated for non-violent but ambitious action. The use of public and private speeches was also a notable activity that engaged black people and supporters to educate themselves about the legal system and ways to disobey (Andrews and Gaby 518).
One of the notable protests that derived from one example was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which happened in 1955-1956 (Andrews 42). Similar protests were then launched in other regions to oppose bus disintegration. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized by King became the leading influencer of the actions that the protesters used (Higginbotham 126). However, the protests and sit-ins, while being peaceful, were met with extreme violence and legal changes.
Roadblocks: Official and Unofficial
The official limitations of the Civil Rights Movement were represented by Jim Crow laws themselves, and the pursuit of equal rights was founded on the need to eliminate these legal restrictions. States introduced their laws, but the majority of them had a similar structure of segregating POC from whites in all publicly used places. Moreover, many regions introduced literacy checks for people to limit them from voting, thus suppressing the political influence of black people. In turn, the quality of education was kept low through the segregation of schools, where facilities for POC were unequipped and understaffed (Fremon 53). Thus, all legal power was stripped away from black people with local policies. On the federal level, the situation was also managed by politicians who supported segregation.
In 1896, the early attempts to counter the treatment of black Americans were overruled in the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, where the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the “separate but equal” idea and its legality under the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling employed an argument that black people self-identified as inferior, stating that “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it,” segregated buses are viewed as discriminatory (Plessy v. Ferguson). This official limitation was overruled only in 1954, almost sixty years after this court decision.
In this period, however, the black community also encountered an opposition that was much more aggressive and violent than the Civil Rights Movement. Before during, and after the Civil War, freed and enslaved black people were exposed to the racism of white supremacy groups which practiced lynching and public torture (Higginbotham 112). In Southern states, this practice was especially prevalent, being exercised in the twentieth century.
In later years of the resurged movement, the protesters who peacefully sat or marched were met with law enforcement violence as well as mob attacks (Higginbotham 113). Both the activists of the Movement and people who did not engage in protests were affected by Jim Crow laws.
Personal Costs and Progress
The violence to which black people were exposed in the United States is not confined by the eras of slavery or Jim Crow laws. However, the impact of these laws on black people’s mortality cannot be denied – as Krieger et al. note, the rates of premature mortality (involuntary and early deaths) of black people in the U.S. were extremely high during the periods of Jim Crow laws’ enactment and abolition (494). The authors outline the period from 1960 to 1964 as the time of most deaths (Krieger et al. 494). This finding supports the idea that lynching was largely undocumented and overlooked by law enforcement agencies that supported white supremacy movements. Thus, the population of black people suffered immense losses during the period of protests for equality.
The outcomes of these laws, however, are not fully resolved to this day. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated segregation in facilities, many local governments declined these changes for many years. In the South, these laws were met with violent opposition, and black people were unable to vote or exercise their other rights safely. Currently, racial discrimination is outlawed, but it still affects the black community. According to Firebaugh and Farrell, racial inequality in neighborhoods still exists in the country, with many black Americans living in predominantly black areas that are also poor and underserved (139).
Jones-Eversley et al. argue that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement arose as a reaction to the growing racial tensions which led to police brutality and unfair treatment of black people by the legal system. The authors argue that Jim Crow laws were not eliminated, transforming into such laws as “Three Strikes You’re Out and Stand Your Ground” instead (Jones-Eversley et al. 314). These policies, while not explicitly targeting minorities, encourage violent behavior, unfair justice system decisions, and inadequate self-defense measures.
The history of POC in America is saturated with violence, discrimination, and opposition. The installation of Jim Crow laws in the nineteenth century led to the increase in death of African Americans and disrupted their attempts at gaining equal rights. To this day, the effects of Jim Crow policies are visible in court decisions, police violence, and inequality of treatment for black people. The Civil Rights Movement led by motions of peace and non-violence in the 1960s reached significant legal changes, but the pushback of the public based on ingrained racism leaves contemporary black people feeling unsafe. The modern BLM community is a sign that Jim Crow laws, while being legally absent for over fifty years, still have an impact on people’s consciousness.
Andrews, Kenneth T. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Andrews, Kenneth T., and Sarah Gaby. “Local Protest and Federal Policy: The Impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” Sociological Forum, vol. 30, no, S1, 2015, pp. 509-527.
Biggs, Michael, and Kenneth T. Andrews. “Protest Campaigns and Movement Success: Desegregating the US South in the Early 1960s.” American Sociological Review, vol. 80, no. 2, 2015, pp. 416-443.
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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Supreme Court of the United States. Web.
Firebaugh, Glenn, and Chad R. Farrell. “Still Large, but Narrowing: The Sizable Decline in Racial Neighborhood Inequality in Metropolitan America, 1980–2010.” Demography, vol. 53, no. 1, 2016, pp. 139-164.
Fremon, David K. The Jim Crow Laws and Racism in United States History. Enslow Publishing, 2014.
Higginbotham, F. Michael. Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America. NYU Press, 2015.
Jones-Eversley, Sharon, et al. “Protesting Black Inequality: A Commentary on the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter.” Journal of Community Practice, vol. 25, no. 3-4, 2017, pp. 309-324.
Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Krieger, Nancy, et al. “Jim Crow and Premature Mortality Among the US Black and White Population, 1960–2009: An Age–Period–Cohort Analysis.” Epidemiology, vol. 25, no. 4, 2014, pp. 494-504.
“Louisiana’s ‘Jim Crow’ Law Valid.” The New York Times. 1892. Web.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Supreme Court of the United States. Web.