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The Rise of Jim Crow Laws

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Rise of Jim Crow Laws

The southern economy still depended on the production and sale of cotton, rice, and tobacco. The large plantations still existed. The crops still had to be harvested. A large labor force was still necessary. However, southerners had to find a way to make their economy function with a paid labor force.

A system known as sharecropping developed. A poor farmer would work a piece of land in exchange for a house or cabin on the farm, tools, a mule, and a share of the crop he or she cultivated. The owner did not have to pay wages until harvest time. Meanwhile, the farmers had to buy food, tools, and supplies on credit, charging them against the money they would earn when they sold their share of the crop. This meant, of course, that when the farmer was paid, he immediately had to turn over most of the money to pay his debts. This crop-lien system ensured that sharecroppers would remain poor. Although the South had begun to rebuild its railroads and to industrialize, factory workers were forced to buy high-priced goods on credit at company stores and to live at high rents in company housing. They were no better off than sharecroppers.

Along with this economic subjugation, those in power in the South installed a system of political and social discrimination. The Civil War had only rein- forced the racist attitudes of the old guard of the Confederacy. When African Americans resisted unconstitutional segregationist laws, whites reacted with violence. As the century wore on, lynching became common. A white mob would kidnap a black person who had offended them in some way—perhaps only by failing to stand back to allow a white woman to pass him on the street, perhaps only by operating a successful small business. The mob would then kill the victim, usually by hanging him or her from a tree. They would usually leave the body where it was, as a symbol that they hoped would terrorize and further subjugate the local African-American population. There were thousands of lynchings throughout the South in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Local and state legislatures passed unconstitutional laws requiring payment of poll taxes and passage of literacy tests before a person could vote. Although there were many poor and illiterate whites in the South, only African Americans—probable Republican voters—were required to take these tests and pay these taxes. When they failed, they were barred from voting. Many of the discriminatory laws that had been enacted in the Black Codes were reinstated. They were popularly known as “Jim Crow” laws, after a song lyric. During the 1830s, white actor Thomas Rice performed a vaudeville act in which he blacked his face, danced a jig, and sang a song containing the phrase “jump Jim Crow.” The character became popular, and many other actors performed similar minstrel acts. Many of the ugly racist stereotypes of African Americans in popular culture, which would persist until the time of World War II—rolling eyes, huge lips, a shuffling walk, and a personality compounded of stupidity and hysteria—were based on the comic exaggerations that white minstrel-show actors had invented to make audiences laugh.

African Americans protested that the Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional, but their protests were in vain. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared that the federal government could not apply the Fourteenth Amendment to privately owned businesses. Later, when African American Homer Plessy insisted that as the purchaser of a full-fare railroad ticket, he had the right to ride in any car of the train he wanted, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In an 1896 decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled that as long as a business provided “separate but equal” facilities for customers, it was not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice John Harlan famously dissented, standing up strongly for the full civil rights of African Americans under the Constitution. Ironically, he based part of his argument on racist grounds, pointing out that although the Chinese were a different and in his eyes clearly inferior race, Chinese Americans had the right to ride in first-class railroad cars—how, then could the Court deny the same right to an African American? Harlan went on to write “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Many African Americans resisted Jim Crow laws, and many achieved a success that was truly remarkable, given the obstacles put in their path. One example was Ida B. Wells, who began as a reporter and eventually owned her own newspaper. She became nationally known as a fighter for African-American and women’s rights and the leader of an anti-lynching campaign.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Reconstruction and the Civil War Practice Test

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