A Peek into the Past: The Rise of the Jim Crow South
By Sophie Flotron
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. More specifically, this landmark piece of Civil Rights legislation ended racial segregation in public places. This pattern of segregation, colloquially referred to as the Jim Crow laws, began a century earlier in the wake of the Civil War.
The term “Jim Crow” first emerged in 1828 as a black caricature in Thomas Rice’s minstrel show. While wearing blackface makeup Rice performed a song and dance routine entitled “Jump Jim Crow” that openly mocked black men, much to the amusement of his white audience (David 6; Wormser vii). By the end of the century, “Jim Crow” would come to stand for a system of unforgiving racial laws and customs. As a whole, Jim Crow laws ensured the social, legal, and political subordination of African Americans in the United States. In the postbellum world, the rise of racial segregation and the triumph of white supremacy may seem unsurprising given the long history of racial tension in America. However, the emergence of the Jim Crow system was far from inevitable (David 18).
On January 31, 1865, the thirteenth amendment officially granted freedom to all slaves in the United States. Literally overnight, slaves were legally transformed from 3/5s of a person to full-fledged citizens. This rapid transition radically altered the political, economic, and social norms of the South and the process was highly tumultuous. Almost immediately, the former slaves took advantage of their newfound freedom and engaged in activities previously denied to them. Across the south, blacks organized parades, dressed in bright clothing, carried parasols, rode in carriages, and even refused to defer to whites on the street (Wormser 8). They also began to exert economic power and during this time blacks resisted many of the efforts by whites to control their lives. In the post-Civil War period, blacks called for shorter work hours, land, and schools for their children. In sharp contrast to the antebellum era, blacks had the power to walk off plantations and refuse to sign contracts if the terms were not satisfying (Wormser 15). Ultimately, much progress was made, but this newfound freedom did not last as long as hoped. By the end of the year, white southerners rallied to prevent blacks’ rise from slavery. This effort manifested in the 1865 and 1866 Black Codes which were specifically designed to limit the newly freed people’s economic and social freedom (David 13). All hope, however, was not lost.
The Black Codes might have prevailed if not for an overwhelmingly Republican Congress that was sympathetic to the plight of former slaves and also bitter towards the South after long years of battle and bloodshed. In March of 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was formed as an agency to assist blacks in the postbellum South. The bureau held legal power in the fallen South and successfully nullified the majority of the Black Codes. In 1866, Congress took further action to try to eliminate discrimination both at the federal and state levels. Steps included repealing a federal law that barred black people from carrying mail, allowing African Americans to testify in federal courts, and admitting blacks to the visitors’ galleries in Congress (Wormser 16). Congress also drafted and passed two important pieces of legislation. The Civil Rights Act confirmed that all Americans were entitled to civil rights while the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill extended the life of the bureau and granted it the power to intervene wherever blacks were denied civil rights enjoyed by whites.
President Andrew Johnson, hoping to gain the support of Southern democrats and quickly restore the union, vetoed both acts. However, Johnson miscalculated the extent to which civil rights had become a national issue (Wormser 16). In response, the Radical Republicans in Congress overrode his veto and then passed the fourteenth amendment. This amendment confirmed that blacks were citizens and required states to equally apply and protect civil rights. Following this humiliating defeat, Johnson embarked on a series of nationwide speeches, hoping to sway the congressional elections of 1866 into returning a Democratic or Conservative Republican Congress that would allow Johnson to wield his veto power. Johnson failed spectacularly and the Republican victory was overwhelming. With a secure majority of over two-thirds in Congress, the party had the power to override any of Johnson’s vetoes. Reconstruction and the future of the fallen South now effectively rested solely in the hands of the Radical Republican Congress.
Congress wasted little time in crafting a stronger approach to Reconstruction. Republicans were still bitter over the Civil War and blamed Democrats for fracturing the union. They firmly believed that the South deserved harsher punishments for their act of treason. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 divided the eleven former confederate states into five military districts, each with a general who was meant to prepare the state for readmission to the union. In order to gain readmission, the Southern states would have to amend their constitutions to guarantee that African Americans would be recognized as full citizens with civil and political rights guaranteed. Along with a promise for equal civil and political rights, these constitutions established schools, prisons, and asylums for both races, removed much discrimination against blacks, and outlawed harsh punishments (Wormser 20). In most states, blacks were even allowed to sit on juries and testify in court. Ultimately, with the Radical Republicans leading Reconstruction, much progress was made for the former slaves.
Many white southerners loudly opposed these measures. Although Republicans controlled the South and African Americans were increasingly important players, the Democratic Party, with its platform of white supremacy, still undeniably dominated as the political ideology of the former confederacy. With a presidential election approaching in 1868, the democrats used every means to intimidate black voters into abandoning the polls, including cutting off credit to black Republicans and evicting tenants who voted (Wormser 20). A local terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, arose in Texas and quickly spread throughout the South. The white supremacist party would terrorize African Americans for the next century and the Klan murdered black leaders throughout the South and engaged in other acts of violence to intimidate blacks. Despite these efforts, however, blacks continued to vote in large numbers, and in 1868 the Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant was carried by the South to the presidency. Grant had received the original party nomination after Johnson continued to be a barrier to congressional Reconstruction. While Grant was certainly not for total equality, he had faithfully carried out congressional Reconstruction policies.
In response to Grant’s election, the Klan unleashed a murderous rampage. They sought to eliminate, eradicate, and exterminate all Republicans regardless of skin color. Unsurprisingly, however, blacks were especially subjected to this brutal treatment. Some state governments fought back against the Klan and national attempts were also made to combat the Klan. Between 1870 and 1871, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts that were meant to protect citizens’ right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection under the law. The Acts also granted the federal government the power to intervene if states failed to act to protect these rights. President Grant declared the Klan in rebellion against the authority of the United States and thus sent in federal troops to restore order across the South. These policies all proved to be successful and Klan violence did diminish somewhat. All signs pointed towards racial progress. By the early 1870s, blacks were elected as congressmen, senators, lieutenant governors, state treasurers, superintendents of education, and state legislators. Overall, as Northerner Albert Morgan reflected years later, “the period from 1869-1875 was one of substantial, and… wonderful progress” (Wormser 27).
In just a few short years, however, this promise of freedom would be betrayed. The previously booming United States economy came to a grinding halt in 1873. The economic collapse proved disastrous for the Republican Party and in the 1874 congressional election, the Democratic party seized control (Wormser 29). By 1876 the Democrats had regained their position in every southern state except for Louisiana and the Carolinas. This shift in political power radically altered the course of Reconstruction. The 1877 presidential election was a close battle between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Tilden secured the popular vote and seemed likely to win the election. Republicans, however, controlled the Electoral College and thus Hayes won the election. In response, Democrats threatened to filibuster in the Senate and block Hayes from office. The two parties reached an agreement in the Compromise of 1877. The Democrats agreed to Hayes’s election, and in exchange the Republicans agreed to officially end Reconstruction. The South’s future was now in the hands of the Democratic Party, effectively severing any hope for racial progress.
Black assertiveness and resiliency in the post-war period convinced Democrats that the former slaves needed to be “reminded” of their subordinate place in society. Thus, in the 1870s, the Democrats, no longer burdened by Republican presence, launched a campaign to disfranchise the freedmen throughout the South (Hoffman 83). The movement gained momentum in the 1880s and triumphed throughout the 1890s and into the early 1900s in blatant disregard of the fifteenth amendment (David 16). The first disfranchisement measure, the poll tax, emerged in Georgia in 1871. Texas, Virginia, and Florida would all follow suit in 1874, 1876, and 1889 respectively. In 1874 Texas also introduced voter registration procedures that largely discriminated against blacks. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Tennessee all adopted similar procedures by 1889. A third measure was an “understanding clause” that tested a potential voter’s understanding of the state constitution (David 16). These three policies were aimed at preventing the black vote, yet they were also detrimental to poor whites. In order to avoid this issue, the South enacted the “grandfather clause” which exempted those who had voted or whose ancestors had voted prior to 1866 from educational, property, or tax requirements. As blacks were not guaranteed the vote until the 1870 fifteenth amendment, these clauses served solely to protect the vote for impoverished whites (Wormser 73).
As Democrats worked to disenfranchise blacks, they also worked to dismantle the few desegregation measures passed during Reconstruction and as the 1880s progressed, the divide between the races widened further (David 16; Wormer 58). The paternalistic attitudes of the antebellum period and the flexible race relations of reconstruction quickly faded and were increasingly replaced by a harsher disposition (Steedman 107). Whites began to demand new laws to control blacks and this call would give rise to the Jim Crow system in the following decade. Tennessee passed the first segregated public transportation law in 1881. From 1887 to 1899, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia passed similar legislation. By 1900, all the former confederate states had some form of legalized segregation precedent (David 16-18).
In 1896 the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” This decision would define racial relations for the next half-century of American history. The case began in 1892 after Louisiana passed laws segregating the railroads. In that same year, Homer Plessy, a man who was only 1/8th African American, decided to challenge the law in the courts. Fully aware of the consequences, he purposefully boarded a train car designated for whites, announced that he was African American, and refused to move. He was arrested and his case went to court, where a local judge ruled against Plessy. In 1896 the case went to the Supreme Court, which handed down its now famed doctrine that separate facilities were constitutional so long as they were equal. The Plessy decision set a precedent and paved the way for widespread legalized racial segregation (Hoffer 1).
The doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson was soon applied to nearly every aspect of public life. In the late nineteenth century, legal segregation applied primarily to trains. While social segregation had undeniably existed in much of the public space it was not yet codified in law. In the early twentieth century, legal segregation quickly came to dominate Southern life. Signs stating “only whites permitted” or “for blacks only” soon dotted the Southern landscape. Blacks and whites used separate water fountains, rest rooms, entrances to buildings, elevators, cashier windows, and cemeteries. Patients were racially separated in hospitals, mental institutions, jails, prisons, elderly homes, and orphanages. In Alabama, separate bibles were used when swearing in blacks and whites in court and in North Carolina and Florida school textbooks for black and white children were required to be kept separate (Wormser 105; David 27). Ultimately, only a few years into the twentieth century, the Jim Crow system was in full effect. The doctrine of “separate but equal” was undeniably a charade and black facilities were woefully worse than their white counterparts. This policy of segregation would continue to dominate southern life for years to come. The Jim Crow system would ensure the second-class status of African Americans until the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case ruled that “separate but equal” was “inherently unequal” (Hoffer 172).
Hoffer, Williamjames. Plessy V. Ferguson : Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Print.
Smith, John David. When Did Southern Segregation Begin? : Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.
Steedman, Marek D. Jim Crow Citizenship : Liberalism and the Southern Defense of Racial Hierarchy. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Wormser, Richard. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Print