A quick read of American history would leave you with the impression that African-Americans, or descendants of African slaves, have suffered great injustices, specifically due to the colour of their skin, which was defined as the legal and psychological basis for racism in American society. This is absolutely true and impossible to argue otherwise. Only a racist would dispute it.
American society from 1783 to 1965 was one of two worlds based on the denial of rights to any person of colour. Despite the end of slavery in 1865, many states, mostly southern ones, refused to accord the full exercise of rights to a person of colour. They sought and created laws to deny freedoms in the early years of the XVIIIth Century. These laws became known as ‘Jim Crow’ in the 1880s, and reached their apogee in the 1896 ‘Plessy v. Ferguson’ Supreme Court decision that permitted the existence of separate but equal facilities for white and black people. Naturally, the ‘equal’ part of the equation was ignored.
The question of what was the impact of ‘Jim Crow’ is easily answered: it not only denied rights, but dignity and prosperity as well to millions of Americans, who constantly resisted it and succeeded in overthrowing it in the 1950s. The following discussion will examine how dignity and prosperity were denied. The terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ are personally disliked by the author, but will be used, as they are recognized as current references of debate and writing.
Racism preceded slavery, because one needed a logic to morally support this odious institution, and when it was succeeded by segregation, the logic merely moved with it. Racism contained socially acceptable negative terminology, which pervaded most social institutions, including entertainment, one of which was minstrel shows that were extremely popular musical shows . The term ‘Jim Crow’ refers to a black character in one of the songs. One can only guess who applied the term to the segregation laws.
Exactly what were these laws? These laws first appeared in Northern states in the early 1800s, but quickly spread to the Southern ones by the late 1800s where they were applied most vociferously. The Supreme Court’s decision ‘Dred Scott’ in 1857 that blacks were not citizens and that laws limiting slavery were unconstitutional was beyond belief. The ridiculousness of racism and its application appears in all the laws carefully, judiciously and sincerely debated and passed. Their principal basis was the separation of the public and private space of blacks and whites, such as telephone booths in Oklahoma. They could not be together. If this ever occurred, the former has to defer to the latter. This was the socially accepted act, which made a mockery of the ‘separate but equal’ part, because deference was inherently submissive. Any white person could call elderly black men and women ‘boy’. This was humiliating.
The most visibly affected public areas were transportation, recreation and eating facilities,1 which meant that buses, cinemas and restaurants had to have separate sections, or even rooms for blacks and whites. In each instance, the former got the worst and were always at the back. One could reduce this situation to knowing one’s place. In the case of the buses, it was here where a famous civil right act and protest developed, when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, and this galvanized an incipient bus boycott. Personal relations, sexual included, were not excepted. Marriage between a black and white person was illegal in some states, while in the others, it often resulted in the lynching of the black person; a practice that still occurred up to the 1950s.
Two of the most affected areas were education and the right to vote. The early ‘Black Codes’ of 1865-6 restricted the rights of blacks, but the Civil Rights of 1866 and actions by military governors overturned them by 1877. The inability for many blacks to educate themselves was a characteristic of most Southern states.2 Chronic lack of funding for non-white schools was unsurprising. It is shocking as to why it was believed to have a part of the population living in ignorance; perhaps, their utility as labourers remained only if they were uneducated. But, in the case of ‘Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka’ in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation has no place in public schools. In Little Rock, the governor of Arkansas defied this order in 1957 forcing the federal government to intervene and integrate the school.
The other options to segregating schools was either redrawing district lines, so that blacks and whites are in separate areas, or funding private schools, which could better control entrance eligibility. Both of these options were increasingly used, because many counties and states had not fully comprehended the end of segregation. Southern states did everything they could to prevent blacks from exercising the vote They placed requirements such as literacy tests, poll taxes, which was a local and state tax placed on the head of each person and if it was not paid, they were not eligible to vote, and grandfather clauses, which was a legal provision excusing a person or group of people from a prohibition if they had exercised it in the past, to intimidate them into not wanting to vote.3 Between the 1930s and 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled each requirement as unconstitutional; grandfather clauses in 1939, literacy tests in 1965 and poll taxes in 1966
The humiliation and secondary status engendered inequality. It became institutionalized and grew. Attempts to redress it were often met with violence. A few examples are the murders of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the three civil rights activities in Mississippi in 1964. Major instances of state-sponsored violence occurred in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, when hundreds of protesters were injured on national television. Such a public display of hatred generated massive sympathy for the civil rights cause and helped undo ‘Jim Crow’ segregation.
The enforced inequality can be argued to have created a set of secondary citizens who were made to feel as if they did not belong to the land of their birth. Such a feeling led many to look elsewhere for new hope and livelihood, such as the Caribbean and Africa; two examples are the creation of the colony of Liberia in west Africa as a new home for freed slaves that became independent in 1847, and that of Marcus Garvey in the 1910s and 1920s calling on blacks to return to Africa, the land of their ancestors.
Laws preventing what you can do and where result in the denial of the possibility to generate wealth and stability. One consequence is the migration to areas with less or no limitations, which were the North and Northeast regions. This accelerated in the 1910s, as there was a demand for labour to create the arms for the American forces in Europe during World War I. The period known as the Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877 is highly relevant to this discussion as it was when the rebellious Southern states were re-integrated into the country. But, being considered second in all things often resulted in the loss of current employment if redundancies were necessary and the refusal to be hired for new jobs. The racial and social atmosphere in the South meant that blacks were still not considered equal. Slavery had left a deep mark on people’s minds. It would take many generations to remove it.
The ‘Black Codes’ of 1865-6 attempted to reinstitute many Slavery-era laws through the back door by forbidding blacks to own land, forcing them to sign contracts to work at a job for 1 year, or even permitting the use of the whip.4 Thankfully, these were overturned by 1877. It is difficult to argue whether the plans of President Johnson to re-integrate the country included blacks, as he vetoed the Civil Rights act of 1866 and Reconstruction Acts of 1867, but Congress passed the laws despite him, and he also called on the states to reject the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments abolishing slavery, giving citizenship to blacks and making it illegal to deny the right to vote based on race.5 He preferred state control over the vote.
An economic depression in 1873-7 helped fuel popular resistance to Reconstruction soon limited funding and support of its programs by the 1870s.Therefore, aid programs to create jobs in black areas were shut down or the funds diverted to other areas.6 The inability of the South to accept blacks as equals brought it to a halt and federal administrations soon moved away from it as they wanted to bring the country back together. The purchase and use of land is one of the major contributors to economic independence, but extra-legal groups developed to intimidate blacks, the biggest of which was the Ku Klux Klan dating back to 1865 in Tennessee, thus it could not be taken advantage of, and since cotton maintained itself as the major industry in the South despite the end of slavery, most black workers stayed in it as it was one of the few industries that had steady employment. Industrial development had only taken hold in the northern regions of the country.
Despite a few laws passed in 1870-1 designed to support the enforcement of the 14th amendment, prospects decreased as not only segregation laws become more restrictive, but also popular customs.7 An example is in housing, because the practice of ‘steering’ in the 1900s pushed blacks from good, healthy, wealthy and clean neighbourhoods, therefore they got stuck in poorly supported and serviced areas. Such an atmosphere made blacks want to move to the North, which was perceived as better and more open; one of the reasons was that it was the North that had fought against slavery.
Poor climate, natural disasters and a lack of manufacturing jobs in the South and the beginning of World War I led to this migration. Economic retardation soon became a characteristic of the South. Many local companies and farms had to shut down. But, upon arrival in the North, the lack of education and training opportunities, which had been imposed in the South, often meant that the migrants could not get jobs. It was not easy for some to escape the past. Paradoxically, wars generate wealth as the demand for weapons and soldiers creates jobs. The salaries tended to be higher so as to attract people to a job in which you might die, but segregation was also present in the army, because there were still separate black units, and even during the Civil War.
A sad instance of an area where no differences should be permitted was churches. Religion is supposed to welcome all people into it, but blacks often were refused entry or had to sit in separate pews. Mainstream churches often split up over the issue as pro and anti organizations were set up. The result of which was the opening of separate churches and congregations unaffiliated to any white ones.
Many small acts when added together can mean a lot. Much of what made up ‘Jim Crow’ were very minor and simple legal distinctions, but they resulted in the separation of a society into two unequal parts whose ramifications are still felt to this day. Enforced historical separation can often lead to hatred in the present, because a culture had been created that did not tolerate differences. Fortunately, there were constant efforts and protests to fight and end ‘Jim Crow’ throughout its horrible existence, which bore fruit in the 1950s and 1960s, and led a to healing. The presidency of Ullyses Grant was a brief light in the post-Civil War period pushing for racial equality, and after he departed, segregation worsened.
The United States is highly criticized for this period as it created high hopes of equality when it was created. People have flocked to it over the centuries to get a piece of the American dream. The ‘Jim Crow’ laws resemble South Africa’s Apartheid, but only differ as the former’s application and severity varied across each state, while the latter was a fully institutionalized system of racial classification.
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