The Jim Crow laws were an umbrella term for state and local laws which legalised racial segregation. African Americans were to be marginalised by these laws – which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968 – by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education and other opportunities. Jim Crow laws often led to arrests, fines, jail sentences, violence, and even death for those who defied them.
In 1865, after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, Jim Crow laws started to emerge.
There were strict local and state laws that outlined when, where, and how formerly enslaved people could work and for how much. In the South, Black Codes served as a legal means of putting Black citizens into indentured servitude, controlling where they lived, and how they travelled, taking away their voting rights and seizing children for labour.
Schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants were all segregated under the laws. There were frequent “Whites Only” signs and “Colored” signs reminding people of the enforced racial order throughout the city.
Although blacks received “separate but equal” treatment under the law, in reality, public facilities for blacks were almost always inferior to those for whites, if they existed at all. Moreover, blacks were systematically denied voting rights in most of the rural South through racially discriminatory literacy tests.
The Democratic Party and local governments, and President Andrew Johnson hindered the advancement of Black Americans. The Jim Crow system was upheld by local government officials and reinforced by acts of terror perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes.
African Americans faced a rising level of violence, making danger a regular part of their lives. White people attacked, tortured, and lynched Black citizens at night, while black schools were vandalised and destroyed. Across the South, families were attacked and forced off their land.
Many black activists protested the Jim Crow laws. NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was founded in 1909 to provide a genuinely effective civil rights organisation against Jim Crow laws.
Ida B. Wells became an activist against the laws after refusing to leave a first-class train car reserved for whites. A conductor forcibly removed her from her seat, and she bit him. She successfully sued the railroad, however, a higher court later reversed that decision.
On 17 May 1954, in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, it was ruled unanimously that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, opening the door to integration and the repeal of Jim Crow laws.