Since 2020, you’ve probably been hearing politicians and reporters reference the Jim Crow laws of the past. If you’re under 55 and not an American history buff, you might not be familiar with the term Jim Crow or the laws that once identified with that name.
So, who was Jim Crow?
Of lesser importance to the series of laws the name later identified with, Jim Crow was a racist fictional theater character who, from the 1820s to 1850s, poked fun at African-Americans slaves while performing in blackface.
The actor who played Jim Crow was no one special and not worth mentioning.
What were Jim Crow laws?
Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, Southern states, in an effort to dehumanize blacks, implemented racist legislation to prevent them from acclimating to American society and being treated as equals.
The statutes, erected from the 1870s to 1960s, would eventually be dubbed the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, a fitting nickname synonymous with the measures it became associated with.
Examples of Jim Crow: Unwritten Rules
Any activity which suggested or lent credence to racial integration was viewed as a declaration of war. And if violence had to be used to keep blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, then so be it.
The following Jim Crow etiquette norms, supplied and detailed by Ferris State University in collaboration with the Jim Museum, show how hideous and cowardice the creators of these Jim Crow official, unofficial ‘standards of ethics’ were:
- A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being socially equal. Obviously, a black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape.
- Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together. If they did eat together, whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.
- Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.
- Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that blacks were introduced to whites, never whites to blacks. For example: “Mr. Peters (the white person), this is Charlie (the black person), that I spoke to you about.”
- Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma’am. Instead, blacks were called by their first names. Blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to whites, and were not allowed to call them by their first names.
- White motorists always had the right-of-way at all intersections.
Stetson Kennedy, the author of Jim Crow Guide (1990), offered these simple rules that blacks were supposed to observe in conversing with whites:
- Never assert or even intimate that a white person is lying.
- Never impute dishonorable intentions to a white person.
- Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.
- Never curse a white person.
- Never laugh derisively at a white person.
- Never comment upon the appearance of a white female.
Real Laws: The above items weren’t “real laws” but examples of the unwritten rules, social etiquette practiced – and often enforced – in the South.
What were actual Jim Crow laws enacted by state governments which subsequently created the foundation for the etiquette cited above?
Examples of Jim Crow: Actual Laws
The most common types of Jim Crow laws forbade intermarriage and requested businesses and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated.
Here are just a few examples of Jim Crow laws and the corresponding states in which they were enacted. This list is supplied and detailed by Ferris State University in collaboration with the Jim Museum.
Nurses: No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro men are placed. Alabama
Parks: It shall be unlawful for colored people to frequent any park owned or maintained by the city for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of white persons…and unlawful for any white person to frequent any park owned or maintained by the city for the use and benefit of colored persons. Georgia
Restaurants: It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. Alabama
Intermarriage: The marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu shall be null and void. Arizona
Education: The schools for white children and the schools for negro children shall be conducted separately. Florida
Burial: The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons. Georgia
Housing: Any person…who shall rent any part of any such building to a negro person or a negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family, or vice versa when the building is in occupancy by a negro person or negro family, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five ($25.00) nor more than one hundred ($100.00) dollars or be imprisoned not less than 10, or more than 60 days, or both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court. Louisiana
Amateur Baseball: It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race. Georgia
Hospital Entrances: There shall be maintained by the governing authorities of every hospital maintained by the state for treatment of white and colored patients separate entrances for white and colored patients and visitors, and such entrances shall be used by the race only for which they are prepared. Mississippi
Theaters: Every person…operating…any public hall, theatre, opera house, motion-picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race and shall set apart and designate…certain seats therein to be occupied by white persons and a portion thereof, or certain seats therein, to be occupied by colored persons. Virginia
See more Jim Crow laws by state.
Blacks who violated or were under a whimsical suspicion or assumption of breaching the Jim Crow laws and/or system of etiquette risked their homes and jobs, and even their lives.
In fact, Whites could physically beat – and kill – blacks with impunity because the latter had little legal defense against assaults because the Jim Crow criminal justice system (police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and prison officials) was all-white and all-racist.
An example of breaking the Jim Crow code of etiquette: A black person, on a 98-degree day, drinks water from a whites-only water fountain because the blacks-only fountain is broken.
For more severe cases, violence, even murder, was often the unwritten code of punishment as lynchings were public, often sadistic, and carried out by mobs. Victims were hanged, shot, burned at the stake, castrated, beaten with clubs, or dismembered.
“This is an early indication that lynching was used as an intimidation tool to keep blacks, in this case, the newly freed people, “in their places” and the great majority of lynchings occurred in southern and border states, where the resentment against blacks ran deepest,” cited Ferris State University in collaboration.
Since 2020, we’ve seen a strong effort by some states to create deterrents to voting for minorities, especially poor blacks. Like the Jim Crow laws before them, they don’t totally defy Constitution and the right to vote but create unwarranted obstacles for some to exercise those rights.
Voting Rights Example: Today, you’ll often find a bunch of voting precincts in predominately white suburban areas. People in those communities can vote quickly and go about their day.
However, in some mostly-black urban areas, one voting location may be forced to serve an outrageous number of people. It’s purposeful and the objective is to create super long lines to discourage people in those areas from voting.
Hence, voting rights aren’t (literally) being taken away but obstacles are being created for some to vote.
People shouldn’t have to wait 3 hours or more to cast their ballot.
… That’s an example of Jim Crow and one of several tactics being used to “legally” stifle minority voting.
Critical Race Theory (CRT)
Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic movement that has sparked controversy nationwide, seeks to educate students on how centuries of American racism has shaped public policy and society.
Racism is not simply a byproduct of individual bias or prejudice, but also something that was embedded in our legal systems and policies for over 200 years, such as the aforementioned Jim Crow laws and similar unwritten rules of etiquette.
When legalized slavery ended, legal discrimination against Black people continued through Jim Crow racial segregation laws.
Imagine signing a legal contract with fine print at the bottom containing a bunch of mumbo jumbo that ultimately canceled the provisions set forth in the contract.
That’s a bit like the old Jim Crow laws.
Blacks were free … but not without legally-backed constraints, obstacles, and deterrents.
And while blacks were equal to whites under the Constitution, state and local laws ensured they were second class and under-privileged during the Jim Crow era.
American blacks, post-slavery, were forced to live under such covenants for nearly 100 years and the remnants of those undertakings can be seen today.
CRT Example (per EdWeek.org): In the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.
And today, those same patterns of discrimination live on through facially race-blind policies like single-family zoning that prevents the building of affordable housing in advantaged, majority-white neighborhoods thus stymying racial desegregation efforts.
Avoiding the truth about America’s past will do no favors for us in the future.
If teaching revisionist history won’t acknowledge systemic racism, how can it even begin to dismantle it and make our country more equitable?
As English teacher Mike Stein told Chalkbeat Tennessee about the new law: “History teachers can not adequately teach about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author because many of them mention racism to various extents.”
In the struggle to achieve racial equality, the United States has made awesome strides, even since the 1950s which wasn’t that long ago.
But some seem hellbent on turning back the clock to the 1950s or earlier.
‘Make America Great Again’
Nearly 350 years of government-sponsored oppression and racism (1619-1965), including nearly 250 years of legalized slavery (1619-1865), has left an indelible scar on the fabric of society that, unfortunately, won’t fully heal for quite some time.
For the aforementioned reasons, as they relate to limiting voting rights and banning Critical Race Theory in our schools, some are outraged an apparent second version of Jim Crow is being bantered in the 2020s and at a time of enhanced knowledge; and after we’ve seemingly made so many great strides in civility and multiculturalistic understanding.
Next time you read or hear about ‘Jim Crow 2.0,’ you’ll know exactly why – It’s an effort to further legalize forms of racism by creating and enacting racist laws written under the guise of protecting equality and American constitutionality.