Jim Crow essay

The term Jim Crow is a largely derogatory one, originating from a 19th century song and dance number called, “Jump Jim Crow,” which perpetrates a stage caricature of the African-American. As such, the derogatory weight of the term lay mostly in white man’s show business. However, it is also associated with racial segregationist laws and social policies that came into being following the American Civil War, known as Jim Crow laws. (Woodward, 2000)

However Pilgrim (2000) argues that the Jim Crow era, spanning from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, was more than just racist legislation, but “a way of life. ” This is an important point to consider, as Jim Crow social policies resulted from the aftermath of the American Civil War, which saw the abolition of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment. This assertion may seem puzzling, but removing the legality of abject servitude for blacks meant that the relationship between whites and blacks was much less rigid.

In effect, Jim Crow laws and policies were designed to ensure that the black man recognize ‘his place’ in the social order, despite laws asserting their equality. (Gates & Appiah, 1999; Pilgrim, 2000) The Jim Crow phenomenon therefore reflected the white hostility towards emancipation, which was so powerful as to incite veterans of the Confederate Army to express their dissatisfaction by forming the organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, which was intent on defying Reconstruction legislation by murdering African-Americans and their white sympathizers, as well as their cultural institutions (i. e. churches, schools, etc. ).

Their operations went unchecked for some years, not just because they wore white hoods to conceal their identity, but because of ambivalence and hesitation on the part of local and federal authorities, the best of whom feared the nation’s escalation into another civil war. (PBS, 2002; Library of Virginia, n. d. ) Jim Crow laws that were put into action were astonishing for their breadth and comprehensiveness, resulting in numerous social, political and economic impacts.

Despite the fact that it flew in the face of the 14th Amendment, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregationist policies in Plessy v. Ferguson, and from then on the educational opportunities of children were restricted by what schools they could go to, whilst employment opportunities were determined by what kind of interactions with the white community a job would entail, effectively limiting their economic freedom.

The justification provided was that African-American remained “separate, but equal” with their white peers. Within the political arena, limited educational and economic opportunities meant that Jim Crow laws could be passed by states which curtailed their political participation: voting requirements were designed to employ literacy requirements and poll taxes that barred African-Americans from being able to vote or hold office, whilst including grandfather clauses that exempted White Americans from the same requirements.

Ultimately, the sociological goal was to ensure that the influence of African-Americans on the civic life of the white community was marginal at best. This is most exemplified by those Jim Crow laws that, at best, ignored the validity of mixed-race marriages, and at worst, imposed fines and penalties for them, including imprisonment.

De Jong (2001) observes that resistance to the Jim Crow era, took various forms, such as subtle ones expressed through song and literature, while in overt ones such as plantation laborers leaving their employers in favor of better economic terms, ensuring that white access to plantation labor was intermittent. Meanwhile communities began organizing means by which African-Americans could achieve economic independence from the white community, to sever the chain of reliance between them for food, shelter and other necessities.

In effect, reducing their economic dependence on the white community required the strengthening of their community’s internal ties. Furthermore, the rise of the NAACP to function as a legal form of resistance to Jim Crow laws helped expedite the decline of Jim Crow laws. Through forceful litigation and persistent activist efforts, they pressured the Supreme Court to overturn the constitutionality of the separate but equal doctrine so asserted by Plessy v. Ferguson.

This was a critical turning point as it led to several other judicial and legislative decisions that effectively dissolved the legality of Jim Crow laws and led towards the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. (Davis, n. d. )


Woodward, C. V. (2000) The Strange Career of Jim Crow, New York, New York: Oxford University Press. Gates, H. L. & Appiah, A. (1999) Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 1999.