Jim Crow Laws


Dr. Charles Atkins and family look at the Sante Fe Depot sign requiring racial segregation in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1955. (AP)

Following Reconstruction and the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern legislatures enacted racially discriminatory statutes and ordinances known as “Jim Crow” laws. This codified system of racial apartheid restricted the economic and civil rights of African Americans and affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, cemeteries, restrooms, transportation, restaurants and other private and public institutions. Between 1890 and 1910, all Southern and border states instituted poll taxes, literacy tests, and other policies to disenfranchise the vast majority of African Americans, who just a few years earlier elected African Americans into office for the first time. Tactics of intimidation, violence, and lynchings terrorized and eroded the personal freedom of African Americans during this time.

Segregation quickly became the law of the South and was upheld in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities for African Americans and whites were constitutional. There were fewer statutory barriers in other regions of the country but discrimination in employment, housing, schools, religious institutions, and most other aspects of life was widespread and often blatant.

A major blow against the Jim Crow system of racial segregation was struck in 1954 by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 officially ended any state’s ability to discriminate, disenfranchise, or otherwise restrict any person on the basis of race.