What Was Jim Crow?MORE
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 (see "From Hostility
to Reverence: 100 Years of African-American Imagery in Games"). All
major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of
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 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Never curse a White person.
- Never laugh derisively at a White person.
- Never comment upon the appearance of a White female.1
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.
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 Staff:
- 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
- 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
- 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 (Florida).
- 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
- 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 (Georgia).
- 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
- 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).
- Prisons. The warden shall see that the white convicts shall
have separate apartments for both eating and sleeping from the negro
- 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...
- 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 (Georgia).2
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
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 falsely
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."5 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."6 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 movement.
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
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 citizens. 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 Washington."8
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 depression.
- The majority of the riots occurred during the hot summer months.
- 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
- In almost every instance, the fighting occurred within the Black
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."10
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
Stetson. Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was. Boca Raton: Florida Atlantic
University Press, 1959/1990, pp.216-117.
list was derived from a larger list composed by the Martin Luther King,
Jr., National Historic Site Interpretive Staff. Last Updated January 5,
1998. The web address is: http//www.nps.gov/malu/documents/jim
Myrdal, An American Dilemma. New York: 1944, pp. 560-561.
op. cit., .561.
A. Rapier, The Tragedy of Lynching. Chapel Hill, 1933, pp.13-14.
Dubois, Originally in Dust of Dawn. Cited here from DuBois: Writings,
Nathan Huggins (editor). New York: Viking Press, 1986, p.747.
Boskin, Urban Racial Violence. Beverly Hills, 1976, pp.14-15.
M. Fredrickson, The Black Image In The White Mind: The Debate on
Afro-American Character and Destiny 1817-1914. New York: Harper &
Row, 1971, p.272.
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