What Was Jim Crow?
Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated
primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states,
between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of
rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African
Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim
Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism. Many
Christian ministers and theologians taught that Whites were the
Chosen people, Blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported
racial segregation. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and
Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief
that Blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to
Whites. Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the
great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the White race.
Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to Blacks as
niggers, coons, and darkies; and worse, their articles reinforced
anti-Black stereotypes. Even children's games portrayed Blacks as
inferior beings. All major societal institutions reflected and
supported the oppression of Blacks.
The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or
rationalizations: Whites were superior to Blacks in all important
ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and
civilized behavior; sexual relations between Blacks and Whites would
produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; treating Blacks
as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity
which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual
relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep Blacks at the
bottom of the racial hierarchy. The following Jim Crow etiquette
norms show how inclusive and pervasive these norms 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.
- Under no circumstance was a Black male to offer to light the
cigarette of a White female -- that gesture implied intimacy.
- Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one
another in public, especially kissing, because it offended
- 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.
- If a Black person rode in a car driven by a White person,
the Black person sat in the back seat, or the back of a truck.
- White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections.
Stetson Kennedy, the author of Jim Crow Guide, 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 suggest that a White person is from an inferior class.
- 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.
Jim Crow etiquette operated in conjunction with Jim Crow laws (black
codes). When most people think of Jim Crow they think of laws (not
the Jim Crow etiquette) which excluded Blacks from public transport
and facilities, juries, jobs, and neighborhoods. The passage of the
13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had granted
Blacks the same legal protections as Whites. However, after 1877,
and the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, southern and
border states began restricting the liberties of Blacks.
Unfortunately for Blacks, the Supreme Court helped undermine the
Constitutional protections of Blacks with the infamous Plessy v.
Ferguson (1896) case, which legitimized Jim Crow laws and the Jim
Crow way of life.
In 1890, Louisiana passed the "Separate Car Law," which purported
to aid passenger comfort by creating "equal but separate" cars for
Blacks and Whites. This was a ruse. No public accommodations,
including railway travel, provided Blacks with equal facilities. The
Louisiana law made it illegal for Blacks to sit in coach seats
reserved for Whites, and Whites could not sit in seats reserved for
Blacks. In 1891, a group of Blacks decided to test the Jim Crow law.
They had Homer A. Plessy, who was seven-eights White and one-eighth
Black (therefore, Black), sit in the White-only railroad coach. He
was arrested. Plessy's lawyer argued that Louisiana did not have the
right to label one citizen as White and another Black for the
purposes of restricting their rights and privileges. In Plessy, the
Supreme Court stated that so long as state governments provided
legal process and legal freedoms for Blacks, equal to those of
Whites, they could maintain separate institutions to facilitate
these rights. The Court, by a 7-2 vote, upheld the Louisiana law,
declaring that racial separation did not necessarily mean an
abrogation of equality. In practice, Plessy represented the
legitimization of two societies: one White, and advantaged; the
other, Black, disadvantaged and despised.
Blacks were denied the right to vote by grandfather clauses (laws
that restricted the right to vote to people whose ancestors had
voted before the Civil War), poll taxes (fees charged to poor
Blacks), white primaries (only Democrats could vote, only Whites
could be Democrats), and literacy tests ("Name all the Vice
Presidents and Supreme Court Justices throughout America's history").
Plessy sent this message to southern and border states:
Discrimination against Blacks is acceptable.
Jim Crow states passed statutes severely regulating social
interactions between the races. Jim Crow signs were placed above
water fountains, door entrances and exits, and in front of public
facilities. There were separate hospitals for Blacks and Whites,
separate prisons, separate public and private schools, separate
churches, separate cemeteries, separate public restrooms, and
separate public accommodations. In most instances, the Black
facilities were grossly inferior -- generally, older,
less-well-kept. In other cases, there were no Black facilities -- no
Colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat.
Plessy gave Jim Crow states a legal way to ignore their
constitutional obligations to their Black citizens.
Jim Crow laws touched every aspect of everyday life. For example, in
1935, Oklahoma prohibited Blacks and Whites from boating together.
Boating implied social equality. In 1905, Georgia established
separate parks for Blacks and Whites. In 1930, Birmingham, Alabama,
made it illegal for Blacks and Whites to play checkers or dominoes
together. Here are some of the typical Jim Crow laws, as compiled by
the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site Interpretive
- Barbers. No colored barber shall serve as a barber
(to) white girls or women (Georgia).
- Blind Wards. The board of trustees shall...maintain a
separate building...on separate ground for the admission, care,
instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or
black race (Louisiana).
- 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).
- Buses. All passenger stations in this state operated
by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting
rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and
colored races (Alabama).
- Child Custody. It shall be unlawful for any parent,
relative, or other white person in this State, having the
control or custody of any white child, by right of guardianship,
natural or acquired, or otherwise, to dispose of, give or
surrender such white child permanently into the custody, control,
maintenance, or support, of a negro (South Carolina).
- Education. The schools for white children and the
schools for negro children shall be conducted separately
- Libraries. 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 (North Carolina).
- Mental Hospitals. The Board of Control shall see that
proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients,
so that in no case shall Negroes and white persons be together
- Militia. The white and colored militia shall be
separately enrolled, and shall never be compelled to serve in
the same organization. No organization of colored troops shall
be permitted where white troops are available and where whites
are permitted to be organized, colored troops shall be under the
command of white officers (North Carolina).
- 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
- Prisons. The warden shall see that the white convicts
shall have separate apartments for both eating and sleeping from
the negro convicts (Mississippi).
- Reform Schools. The children of white and colored
races committed to the houses of reform shall be kept entirely
separate from each other (Kentucky).
- Teaching. Any instructor who shall teach in any
school, college or institution where members of the white and
colored race are received and enrolled as pupils for instruction
shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction
thereof, shall be fined... (Oklahoma).
- Wine and Beer. 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 the two races within the same room at any time
The Jim Crow laws and system of etiquette were undergirded by
violence, real and threatened. Blacks who violated Jim Crow norms,
for example, drinking from the White water fountain or trying to
vote, risked their homes, their jobs, even their lives. Whites could
physically beat Blacks with impunity. Blacks had little legal
recourse against these assaults because the Jim Crow criminal
justice system was all-White: police, prosecutors, judges, juries,
and prison officials. Violence was instrumental for Jim Crow. It was
a method of social control. The most extreme forms of Jim Crow
violence were lynchings.
Lynchings were public, often sadistic, murders carried out by
mobs. Between 1882, when the first reliable data were collected, and
1968, when lynchings had become rare, there were 4,730 known
lynchings, including 3,440 Black men and women. Most of the victims
of Lynch-Law were hanged or shot, but some were burned at the stake,
castrated, beaten with clubs, or dismembered. In the mid-1800s,
Whites constituted the majority of victims (and perpetrators);
however, by the period of Radical Reconstruction, Blacks became the
most frequent lynching victims. This is an early indication that
lynching was used as an intimidation tool to keep Blacks, in this
case the newly-freedmen, "in their places." The great majority of
lynchings occurred in southern and border states, where the
resentment against Blacks ran deepest. According to the social
economist Gunnar Myrdal: "The southern states account for
nine-tenths of the lynchings. More than two thirds of the remaining
one-tenth occurred in the six states which immediately border the
Many Whites claimed that although lynchings were distasteful,
they were necessary supplements to the criminal justice system
because Blacks were prone to violent crimes, especially the rapes of
White women. Arthur Raper investigated nearly a century of lynchings
and concluded that approximately one-third of all the victims were
Under Jim Crow any and all sexual interactions between Black men
and White women was illegal, illicit, socially repugnant, and within
the Jim Crow definition of rape. Although only 19.2 percent of the
lynching victims between 1882 to 1951 were even accused of rape,
Lynch law was often supported on the popular belief that lynchings
were necessary to protect White women from Black rapists. Myrdal
refutes this belief in this way: "There is much reason to believe
that this figure (19.2) has been inflated by the fact that a mob
which makes the accusation of rape is secure from any further
investigation; by the broad Southern definition of rape to include
all sexual relations between Negro men and white women; and by the
psychopathic fears of white women in their contacts with Negro men."
Most Blacks were lynched for demanding civil rights, violating Jim
Crow etiquette or laws, or in the aftermath of race riots.
Lynchings were most common in small and middle-sized towns where
Blacks often were economic competitors to the local Whites. These
Whites resented any economic and political gains made by Blacks.
Lynchers were seldomly arrested, and if arrested, rarely convicted.
Raper estimated that "at least one-half of the lynchings are carried
out with police officers participating, and that in nine-tenths of
the others the officers either condone or wink at the mob action."
Lynching served many
purposes: it was cheap entertainment; it served as a rallying,
uniting point for Whites; it functioned as an ego-massage for
low-income, low-status Whites; it was a method of defending White
domination and helped stop or retard the fledgling social equality
Lynch mobs directed their hatred against one (sometimes several)
victims. The victim was an example of what happened to a Black man
who tried to vote, or who looked at a White woman, or who tried to
get a White man's job. Unfortunately for Blacks, sometimes the mob
was not satisfied to murder a single or several victims. Instead, in
the spirit of pogroms, the mobs went into Black communities and
destroyed additional lives and property. Their immediate goal was to
drive out -- through death or expulsion -- all Blacks; the larger
goal was to maintain, at all costs, White supremacy. These
pogrom-like actions are often referred to as riots; however, Gunnar
Myrdal was right when he described these "riots" as "a terrorization
or massacre...a mass lynching." Interestingly, these mass lynchings
were primarily urban phenomena, whereas the lynching of single
victims was primarily a rural phenomena.
James Weldon Johnson, the famous Black writer, labeled 1919 as
"The Red Summer." It was red from racial tension; it was red from
bloodletting. During the summer of 1919, there were race riots in
Chicago, Illinois; Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee; Charleston,
South Carolina; Omaha, Nebraska; and two dozen other cities. W.E.B.
DuBois, the Black social scientist and civil rights activist, wrote:
"During that year seventy-seven Negroes were lynched, of whom one
was a woman and eleven were soldiers; of these, fourteen were
publicly burned, eleven of them being burned alive. That year there
were race riots large and small in twenty-six American cities
including thirty-eight killed in a Chicago riot of August; from
twenty-five to fifty in Phillips County, Arkansas; and six killed in
The riots of 1919 were not the first or last "mass lynchings" of
Blacks, as evidenced by the race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina
(1898); Atlanta, Georgia (1906); Springfield, Illinois (1908); East
St. Louis, Illinois (1917); Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921); and Detroit,
Michigan (1943). Joseph Boskin, author of Urban Racial Violence,
claimed that the riots of the 1900s had the following traits:
- In each of the race riots, with few exceptions, it was White
people that sparked the incident by attacking Black people.
- In the majority of the riots, some extraordinary social
condition prevailed at the time of the riot: prewar social
changes, wartime mobility, post-war adjustment, or economic
- The majority of the riots occurred during the hot summer
- Rumor played an extremely important role in causing many
riots. Rumors of some criminal activity by Blacks against Whites
perpetuated the actions of the White mobs.
- The police force, more than any other institution, was
invariably involved as a precipitating cause or perpetuating
factor in the riots. In almost every one of the riots, the
police sided with the attackers, either by actually
participating in, or by failing to quell the attack.
- In almost every instance, the fighting occurred within the
Boskin omitted the following: the mass media, especially
newspapers often published inflammatory articles about "Black
criminals" immediately before the riots; Blacks were not only killed,
but their homes and businesses were looted, and many who did not
flee were left homeless; and, the goal of the White rioters, as was
true of White lynchers of single victims, was to instill fear and
terror into Blacks, thereby buttressing White domination. The Jim
Crow hierarchy could not work without violence being used against
those on the bottom rung. George Fredrickson, a historian, stated it
this way: "Lynching represented...a way of using fear and terror to
check 'dangerous' tendencies in a black community considered to be
ineffectively regimented or supervised. As such it constituted a
confession that the regular institutions of a segregated society
provided an inadequate measure of day-to-day control."
Many Blacks resisted the indignities of Jim Crow, and, far too
often, they paid for their bravery with their lives.
© Dr. David Pilgrim,
Professor of Sociology, Ferris State University Sept., 2000