<font size="-1">Thurgood Marshall with Little Rock Defendants.</font>
"It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards." This selection is an example of a Jim Crow law that was in effect in the state of Alabama from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
Jim Crow laws started to come into effect, primarily but not exclusively in southern states, after the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
The legal principle of separate but equal was established in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1895. The Court’s decision was summarized by Chief Justice Henry Billings Brown, who stated that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
That distinction of social, as opposed to strictly legal, discrimination, provided the foundation for states to keep black and white people separated, particularly in social settings and social institutions such as marriage. The convenient fiction of “separate but equal” was quickly abandoned and African Americans were treated as second-class citizens by institutions and laws that persist to this day.
These laws worked to enforce segregation amongst the races, which led to civil rights actions by individuals such as Ida B. Wells, and ultimately to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s led by people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr..
Examples of Jim Crow laws that caused these extreme tensions in the country included the following.
“The business of America is business,” said President Calvin Coolidge, but in his own era and in the present, it has been the country’s business to enforce racial inequality. Buying, selling and the simplest activities of daily life - symbolized most famously by the simple water fountain - were firmly segregated by Jim Crow laws.
- Alabama: “Every employer of white or negro males shall provide for such white or negro males reasonably accessible and separate toilet facilities.”
- Alabama: "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."
- Georgia: “All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine...shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to two races within the same room at any time.
- Georgia: "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."
- Louisiana: “All carriers must provide equal but separate seats for white and colored. No person of one race is allowed to be in the section set aside for the other race.”
Marriage has always been a highly politicized issue. As one of the most fundamental institutions of society, when social change occurs, marriage changes with it. Examples of Jim Crow laws like the following were intended to freeze marriage into a perceived ideal where racial mixing was impossible:
- California: “All marriages of white persons with Negroes, Mongolians, members of the Malay race, or mulattoes are illegal and void."
- Florida: "All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited."
- Wyoming: “All marriages of white persons with Negroes, Mulattos, Mongolians, or Malaya hereafter contracted in the State of Wyoming are and shall be illegal and void."
Jim Crow laws required separate hospitals for whites and African Americans. What’s more, restrictions on education guaranteed a constant shortage of African American medical professionals. Many treatments were only available to white patients, and even blood transfusions were segregated by race, in spite of the fact that Charles R. Drew, one of the pioneers of American blood banks and a groundbreaking scientist in the field, was himself African American.
- Alabama: "No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms or hospitals, either public or private, where negro men are placed."
- Georgia: "The Board of Control shall see that proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients [in a mental hospital], so that in no cases shall Negroes and white persons be together."
- Georgia: "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."
No single issue since the abolition of slavery has been the subject of more race-based conflict than education. Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned segregated schooling, de facto segregation was maintained, both in and out of the Jim Crow South, through redistricting, redlining and covenants of parents and school administrators to maintain the racial homogeneity of white schools.
When desegregation busing threatened to integrate student bodies, parents protested, sometimes violently. Even in 2019, many cities have acknowledged “black schools” and “white schools,” and people offer the same Jim Crow-era arguments against the admission of minority students.
- New Mexico: “Separate rooms [shall] be provided for the teaching of pupils of African descent, and [when] said rooms are provided, such pupils may not be admitted to the school rooms occupied and used by pupils of Caucasian or other descent."
- North Carolina: "The state librarian is directed to fit up and maintain a separate place for the use of the colored people who may come to the library for the purpose of reading books or periodicals."
- Oklahoma: “Any instructor who shall teach in any school, college or institution where members of the white and colored races are received and enrolled as pupils for instruction shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined.”
- Texas: The County Board of Education “shall provide schools of two kinds; those for white children and those for colored children."
From schools and hospitals to prisons and pool halls, the Jim Crow laws sought to keep white and black people separate, and to guarantee the continued subjugation of black people.
As Plessy v. Ferguson explicitly protected social, as opposed to legal, discrimination, African Americans and members of other minorities experienced systematic personal discrimination at the hands of whites. The classic instance is of a white person referring to a grown black man as “boy.” The reverse also applied: African Americans were expected to show deference and submission to whites, invariably referring to them as “Mister” or “Miss.”
But to describe what was expected of African Americans as a “code of behavior” is misleading. There were no rules, and so no one knew when they had broken them. It was simply a matter of whether white people chose to be offended.
In the famous case of Emmett Till, for instance, a 14-year-old African American boy was mutilated and murdered for speaking to a white woman in what his murderers considered an inappropriate fashion. What did Till say? No one knows. The white woman, Carolyn Bryant, gave, and continues to give, conflicting stories. The men who murdered Till weren’t even present. It was enough that someone told them he had spoken inappropriately. That was the “code” that justified lynchings, beatings and police violence in the Jim Crow South.
Jim Crow laws were subject to legal challenges throughout their existence, but real change would have to wait until the 1950s and ‘60s. Thanks in large part to the work of NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, officially abolishing all Jim Crow laws.
While there are technically no examples of Jim Crow laws today, they cast a long shadow over American life. A Texas cemetery attempted to defend its whites only policy as recently as 2016. To learn more about the heroes who helped to end the laws, have a look at our biographies of Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis.