Jim Crow Laws
In conversations about race and racism in America, a term you will commonly hear is “Jim Crow.” Referring to a variety of discriminatory laws, rules, regulations, and customs aimed at Black people, and enforced largely in the South and border states up until the late 1960s, Jim Crow represents the most systemic effort to assert white supremacy after the end of slavery and most bald-faced attempts to curb individual freedoms based on race ever enacted.
The following guide explains what these customs and laws were, where they originated, and how they continue to influence unfair, discriminatory practices and laws today.
The Roots of Jim Crow
Before the name became synonymous with discriminatory laws aimed at Black people, Jim Crow was a stock character in minstrel shows. These touring vaudeville acts revolved around white performers dressing in blackface to mock Black culture, playing up harmful bigoted stereotypes for laughs.
The popularity of “Jim Crow” as a character-led to his name being associated with laws that enforced American apartheid from the reconstruction era onward. Narrowly targeting Blacks, these laws were meant to deny free citizens their basic rights and opportunities simply based on skin color. At the state and local levels, Jim Crow laws and customs dictated everything from how and in what capacities formerly enslaved people could work, where they could live and travel, how much they could be paid, under what conditions they could vote, and daily interactions as common handshaking and introductions. Failure to abide by some—such as the social rule that a Black man was to never touch a white woman, even for a simple handshake—could lead to death from gruesome lynchings, the most violent form of Jim Crow.
While slavery was illegal following the Civil War, the former soldiers and generals of the Confederate army who took up posts in law enforcement and the legislature throughout the South and border states ensured that freedom remained out of reach for Black people.
American Apartheid Spreads
These laws and customs, enacted at a local level and then spreading to state legislatures across the former Confederacy, ensured that white supremacy was the de facto law of the land. These racist laws and customs stacked the deck against Black people, making it easier for them to be arrested, making it harder for them to win their freedom in court, and even returning them to servitude through forced labor at prison camps.
By the 1880s, the largely rural enforcement of these laws and customs led to a surge of formerly enslaved people seeking solace in larger cities. With the rising population of Blacks, city-dwelling whites began to assert their white supremacy, leading to the spread of Jim Crow laws out of the rural South and across the region. Public buildings were segregated, parks were declared off-limits, and the rise of “colored only” drinking fountains, restrooms, building entrances and elevators, cemeteries, amusement parks, and cashier windows effectively created two Souths: one black, one white.
Black and white Americans lived in entirely separate worlds, with the rights and opportunities afforded to all Americans distributed disproportionately on the white side of the dividing line. White supremacy was maintained, even as slavery ended. While Jim Crow was struck down by the federal government in the 1960s, it does not mean the fight to maintain white supremacy and maintain power for whites ended.
Jim Crow Lives: Racism in Modern America
Just as slavery ended in theory with the fall of the confederacy yet white supremacy lived on through Jim Crow, so too was the death of white supremacy only theoretical with the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
One clear example of laws that provide unequal protections to Black and white Americans are the laws that have been constructed to fuel America’s system of mass incarceration, including cash bail. Unjustly denying freedom to people only arrested and not convicted of any crime, cash bail disproportionately locks up Black and lower-income communities, echoing Jim Crow by making it more likely for Black people to stay in jail pending their trial. Bail amounts are massively skewed towards keeping Blacks in jail and making it more likely they are convicted and forced into prison, fueling the mass incarceration industry. On an institutional level, these laws overwhelmingly favor people with money and perpetuate the racism of Jim Crow.
Similarly, the spirit of Jim Crow lives on through recent changes to voting laws, making it harder for Black people to vote. It lives on in the segregation of our communities, and the unequal way educational opportunities are divided across race lines. It lives on in zoning laws that raze some neighborhoods for highways so that others have a shorter commute. It lives in the predatory lending certain banks pursue in traditionally Black American communities.
Slavery didn’t end when the Civil War did. It simply changed with the times, enforced through Jim Crow. Likewise, Jim Crow laws didn’t end in 1964. Once again, they evolved. This time, into something far more sinister but with the goal of maintaining white supremacy.
What Can We Do?
The Fair fight Initiative relies on crowdfunding from the public to continue the fight to end Jim Crow forever and bring justice and equality to all human beings. From exposing corrupt prosecutors, judges, or government officials to shining a light on the broken criminal legal system, to terrible conditions of the prisons in America, to speaking out against racism, discrimination, and police brutality, the Fair Fight Initiative is working to even the playing field for all people.
Because of the historical barriers that have been created throughout American history, many Black Latinx families do not have the money or resources to get high-quality legal help. At the FFI, we provide these people with the vital resources they need.
We ask everyone to think about donating to the Fair Fight Initiative. Your gift will be used to allow us to continue our fight against systemic racism and for a more just society.
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