Jim Crow Laws

After the American Civil War most states in the South passed anti-African American legislation. These became known as Jim Crow laws. This included laws that discriminated against African Americans with concern to attendance in public schools and the use of facilities such as restaurants, theaters, hotels, cinemas and public baths. Trains and buses were also segregated and in many states marriage between whites and African American people.

Jim Crow laws were tested in 1896 by Homer Plessey when convicted in Louisiana for riding in a white only railway car. Plessey took his case to the Supreme Court but the justices voted in favour of the Louisiana Court. William B. Brown established the legality of segregation as long as facilities were kept "separate but equal". Only one of the justices, John Harlan, disagreed with this decision.

In the early 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People concentrated on bringing an end to segregation on buses and trains. In 1952 segregation on inter-state railways was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was followed in 1954 by a similar judgment concerning inter-state buses. However, states in the Deep South continued their own policy of transport segregation. This usually involved whites sitting in the front and blacks sitting nearest to the front had to give up their seats to any whites that were standing.

African American people who disobeyed the state's transport segregation policies were arrested and fined. In 1956 African Americans, led by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, organised the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Bus station in Durham, North Carolina (May 1940)
Bus station in Durham, North Carolina (May 1940)

Transport segregation continued in some parts of the Deep South, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they travelled through the Deep South. On their journeys they also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together, in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when it concerned large companies who, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses.

In 1964, President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, managed to persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. This made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin.

Vending-machine in Jackson, Tennessee
Vending-machine in Jackson, Tennessee (c. 1945)

Primary Sources

(1) Ida Wells (1862-1931), an African American journalist, was one of the leaders of the fight against Jim Crow laws.

In the ten years succeeded the Civil War thousands of Negroes were murdered for the crime of casting a ballot. As a consequence their vote is entirely nullified throughout the entire South. The laws of the Southern states make it a crime for whites and Negroes to inter-marry or even ride in the same railway carriage. Both crimes are punishable by fine and imprisonment. The doors of churches, hotels, concert halls and reading rooms are alike closed against the Negro as a man, but every place is open to him as a servant.

(2) Boston Blackwell, aged 98 from North Little Rock, Arkansas, interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project in 1937.

Them Ku Kluxers was terrible - what they done to people. Oh, God, they was bad. They come sneaking up and run you out of your house and take everything you had. They was rough on the women and children. People all wanted to stay close by where soldiers was. I sure knowed they was my friend.

Now you wants to know about this voting business. I voted for General Grant. Army men come around and registered you before voting time. It wasn't no trouble to vote them days; white and black all voted together. All you had to do was tell who you was vote for and they give you a colored ticket. All the men up had different colored tickets. If you voted for Grant, you get his color. It was easy. They was colored men in office, plenty. Colored legislators, and colored circuit clerks, and colored county clerks. They sure was some big officers colored in them times. They was all my friends. This here used to be a good county, but I tell you it sure is tough now. I think it's wrong - exactly wrong that we can't vote now. The Jim Crow law, it put us out. The Constitution of the United States, it give us the right to vote. It made us citizens, it did.

(3) Ray Stannard Baker, American Magazine, Following the Color Line (1908)

One of the points in which I was especially interested was the Jim Crow regulations, that is, the system of separation of the races in street cars and railroad trains.

I was curious to see how the system worked out in Atlanta. Over the door of each car, I found the sign: "White people will seat from front of car toward the back and colored people from toward front". Sure enough, I found the white people in front and the Negroes behind.

As the sign indicates, there is no definite line of division between the white seats and the black seats, as in many other Southern cities. This very absence of a clear demarcation is significant of many relationships in the South. The colour line is drawn, but neither race knows just where it is. Indeed, it can hardly be definitely drawn in many relationships, because it is constantly changing. This uncertainty is a fertile source of friction and bitterness.

The very first time I was on a car in Atlanta, I saw the conductor - all conductors are white - ask a Negro woman to get up and take a seat farther back in order to make a place for a white man. I have also seen white men requested to leave the Negro section of the car.

"We pay first-class fare," said one of the leading Negroes in Atlanta, "exactly as the white man does, but we don't get first-class service. I say it isn't fair."

Charles T. Hopkins, a leader in the Civic League and one of the prominent lawyers of the city, told me that he believed the Negroes should be given their definite seats in every car; he said that he personally made it a practice to stand up rather than to take any one of the four back seats, which he considered as belonging to the Negroes.

(4) During the First World War the Luftwaffe dropped leaflets from planes on black regiments from the United States.

What is democracy? Personal freedom, all citizens enjoying the same rights socially and before the law. Do you enjoy the same rights as the white people in America, the land of Freedom and Democracy, or are you rather not treated over there as a second-class citizen? Can you go into a restaurant where white people dine? Can you get a seat in the theatre where white people sit? Is lynching a lawful proceeding in a democratic country?

(5) Richard Wright was born in Mississippi. At the age of fifteen he moved to Chicago and later he described what it was like to travel for the first time on non-segregated transport.

We see white men and women get on the train, dressed in expensive new clothes. We look at them guardedly and wonder will they bother us. Will they ask us to stand up while they sit down? Will they tell us to go to the back of the coach? Even though we have been told that we need not to be afraid, we have lived so long in fear of all white faces that we cannot help but sit and wait. We look around the train and we do not see the old familiar signs: "For Colored" and "For White".

Then we board our first Yankee streetcar to go to a cousin's home. We pay the conductor our fare and look about where we please, but we were still scared. We cannot shake off 300 years of fear in three hours. We ease into a seat and look out of the window at the crowded streets. A white man or woman comes and sits besides us, not even looking at us, as though this was a normal thing to do. The muscles of our bodies tighten. Indefinable sensations crawl over our skins and our blood tingles. Out of the corners of our eyes we try to get a glimpse of the strange white face that floats but a few inches from ours.

(6) Agnes Smedley, letter to Aino Taylor (7th December, 1942)

The treatment of Negroes in the south has humiliated and shamed me so deeply that my blood runs cold in my veins. Traveling by bus, with the rain pouring, the driver ordered a dozen Negroes to step back and let two handsome white women aboard first. They came on, then the driver saw they had Negro blood in their veins - perhaps their hair showed it. The driver slapped his leg and bawled with laughter and said to the white passengers: "Now ain't that a joke! I thought they was white and they are Niggers." The faces of t he two women and of all the colored passengers were frozen. Mine froze too. Some of the white passengers broke into a laugh at the joke.

I saw a northern white soldier ask a colored soldier to sit down by him and the latter did so; then the bus driver stopped the bus and said: "Stand up. Nigger!" The colored soldier stood up. The white soldier said: "Aw hell!" and stood up also. But had that white soldier not been in uniform, I don't know what would have happened.

Now when I heard this, I should have stood up and killed the driver. But I sat there petrified, sat there like a traitor to the human race. I kept thinking of what Jesus would have done, and knew that he would perhaps have allowed Himself to be killed. I didn't. I didn't do a thing for many reasons: because I was warned a dozen times by white people that if I did anything it would be the colored people who suffered for it. The whole south whispers if the least thing breaks out. In one town in Georgia a fight started in the colored section of the town. So great is the tension that the minute it started, the railway engine on the train began to toot, the air-raid sirens went off as if there was an air raid, police cars and motorcycles roared through the street, and I heard the firing of guns. A street fight starts such a night alarm.

(7) Martin Luther King , in his book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958) described how racial segregation was organised on buses in Alabama.

Frequently Negroes paid their fare at the front door, and then were forced to get off and reboard at the rear. An even more humiliating practice was the custom of forcing Negroes to stand over empty seats reserved for "whites only". Even if the bus had no white passengers, and Negroes were packed throughout, they were prohibited from sitting in the front four seats (which held ten persons). But the practice went further. If white persons were already occupying all of their reserved seats and additional white people boarded the bus. Negroes sitting in the unreserved section immediately behind the whites were asked to stand so that the whites could be seated. If the Negroes refused to stand and move back, they were arrested.

Water fountains in a Southern town in the 1950s.
Water fountains in a Southern town in the 1950s.


(8) Rosa Parks, interviewed by Howell Raines for the book My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977)

I had left my work at the men's alteration shop, a tailor shop in the Montgomery Fair department store, and as I left work, I crossed the street to a drugstore to pick up a few items instead of trying to go directly to the bus stop. And when I had finished this, I came across the street and looked for a Cleveland Avenue bus that apparently had some seats on it. At that time it was a little hard to get a seat on the bus. But when I did get to the entrance of the bus, I got in line with a number of other people who were getting on the same bus.

As I got up on the bus and walked to the seat I saw there was only one vacancy that was just back of where it was considered the white section. So this was the seat that I took, next to the aisle, and a man was sitting next to me. Across the aisle there were two women, and there were a few seats at this point in the very front of the bus that was called the white section. I went on to one stop and I didn't particularly notice who was getting on the bus, didn't particularly notice the other people getting on. And on the third stop there were some people getting on, and at this point all of the front seats were taken. Now in the beginning, at the very first stop I had got on the bus, the back of the bus was filled up with people standing in the aisle and I don't know why this one vacancy that I took was left, because there were quite a few people already standing toward the back of the bus. The third stop is when all the front seats were taken, and this one man was standing and when the driver looked around and saw he was standing, he asked the four of us, the man in the seat with me and the two women across the aisle, to let him have those front seats.

At his first request, didn't any of us move. Then he spoke again and said, "You'd better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." At this point, of course, the passenger who would have taken the seat hadn't said anything. In fact, he never did speak to my knowledge. When the three people, the man who was in the seat with me and the two women, stood up and moved into the aisle, I remained where I was. When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand up. I told him, no, I wasn't. He said, "Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested." I told him to go on and have me arrested.

He got off the bus and came back shortly. A few minutes later, two policemen got on the bus, and they approached me and asked if the driver had asked me to stand up, and I said yes, and they wanted to know why I didn't. I told them I didn't think I should have to stand up. . . . They placed me under arrest then and had me to get in the police car, and I was taken to jail.

(9) James Eastland, representative from Mississippi, speech in the United States Senate (27th May, 1954)

The southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination. Segregation is not a badge of racial inferiority, and that it is not is recognized by both races in the Southern States. In fact, segregation is desired and supported by the vast majority of the members of both races in the South, who dwell side by side under harmonious conditions.

The negro has made a great contribution to the South. We take pride in the constant advance he has made. It is where social questions are involved that Southern people draw the line. It is these social institutions with which Southern people, in my judgment, will not permit the Supreme Court to tamper.

Let me make this clear, Mr. President: There is no racial hatred in the South. The Negro race is not an oppressed race. A great Senator from the State of Idaho, Senator William E. Borah, a few years ago said on the floor of the Senate: "Let us admit that the South is dealing with this question as best it can, admit that the men and women of the South are just as patriotic as we are, just as devoted to the principles of the Constitution as we are, just as willing to sacrifice for the success of their communities as we are. Let us give them credit as American citizens, and cooperate with them, sympathize with them, and help them in the solution of their problem, instead of condemning them. We are one people, one nation, and they are entitled to be treated upon this basis."

Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire. Free men have the right to send their children to schools of their own choosing, free from governmental interference and to build up their own culture, free from governmental interference. These rights are inherent in the Constitution of the United States and in the American system of government, both state and national, to promote and protect this right.

(10) Tom P. Brady, Black Monday, a booklet published by the Association of Citizens' Councils (1955)

"Black Monday" is the name coined by Representative John Bell Williams of Mississippi to designate Monday, May 17th, 1954, a date long to be remembered throughout this nation. This is the date upon which the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its socialistic decision in the Segregation cases on appeal from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware.

"Black Monday" is indeed symbolic of the date. Black denoting darkness and terror. Black signifying the absence of light and wisdom. Black embodying grief, destruction and death. Should Representative Williams accomplish nothing more during his membership in Congress he has more than justified his years in office by the creating of this epithet, the originating of this watchword, the shouting of this battle cry.

Black Monday ranks in importance with July 4th, 1776, the date upon which our Declaration of Independence was signed. May 17th, 1954, is the date upon which the declaration of socialistic doctrine was officially proclaimed throughout this nation. It was on Black Monday that the judicial branch of our government usurped the sacred privilege and right of the respective states of this union to educate their youth. This usurpation constitutes the greatest travesty of the American Constitution and jurisprudence in the history of this nation....

You can dress a chimpanzee, housebreak him, and teach him to use a knife and fork, but it will take countless generations of evolutionary development, if ever, before you can convince him that a caterpillar or a cockroach is not a delicacy. Likewise the social, political, economical, and religious preferences of the negro remain close to the caterpillar and the cockroach . This is not stated to ridicule or abuse the negro. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the caterpillar or the cockroach. It is merely a matter of taste. A cockroach or caterpillar remains proper food for a chimpanzee.

(11) Elizabeth Eckford was one of the nine African American students who tried to enroll at Little Rock Central High School during September, 1957. She was later interviewed about her attempts to gain entry to the school on the first day of term.

The crowd was quiet. I guess they were waiting to see what was going to happen. When I was able to steady my knees, I walked up to the guard who had let the white students in. When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards closed in and they raised their bayonets. They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn't know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me. Someone started yelling "lynch her!"

I tried to find a friendly face somewhere in the mob. I looked at her again she spat on me. They came closer, shouting, "No nigger bitch is going to get in our school! Get out of here!" Then I saw a bench at the bus stop. When I got there, I don't think I could have gone another step. I sat down and the mob crowded up and began shouting all over again. Just then a white man sat down beside me, put his arm around me and patted my shoulder. He raised my chin and said, "Don't let them see you cry."

(12) James Peck, a white member of the Freedom Riders, wrote about his experiences with his friend, the African American, Charles Person, in Birmingham on 14th May, 1961, in his book, Freedom Rider (1962)

Upon arrival in Birmingham I could see a mob lined up on the sidewalk only a few feet from the loading platform. Most of them were young - in their twenties. Some were carrying ill-concealed iron bars. All had hate showing on their faces.

I looked at them and then I looked at Charles Person, who had been designated as my team mate to test the lunch counter. When I looked at him, he responded by saying simply, "Let's go." As we entered the white waiting room and approached the lunch counter, we were grabbed bodily and pushed toward the alleyway and out of sight of onlookers in the waiting room, six of them started swinging at me with fists and pipes. Five others attacked Person a few feet ahead. Within seconds, I was unconscious on the ground.

(13) Fred Shuttlesworth led the campaign to desegregate buses in Birmingham, Alabama. An account of the campaign appeared in Birmingham: People in Motion (1966)

In May 1956 Alabama politicians "stood on the beach of history and tried to hold back the tide." They outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a desperate attempt to halt the movement for Negro equality. But their action had precisely the opposite effect. For almost immediately the Negroes of Birmingham came together to form a movement which during the last ten years has transformed life in Birmingham - which has shaken America.

"They could outlaw an organization, but they couldn't outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free," said the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, president of the new group. And at a mass meeting called by a committee of Negro ministers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was born. Many Negroes in "the Johannesburg of North America" were afraid to join. But many others echoed the sentiments of Mrs. Rosa Walker, one of the first members: "I was frightened, but I figured we needed help to get us more jobs and better education. And we had the man here to help us."

But Christmas night, the night before the protest, the home of Rev. Shuttlesworth was bombed. The bed in which he was sleeping was directly over the spot where the bomb went off. The bed was blown to bits, but he escaped unhurt. Members of the ACMHR say he was saved to lead the movement.

Shuttlesworth took a neighbor who was hurt in the explosion to the hospital. Then he took a bus home - and he rode in front. The bombing strengthened the determination of his followers in the same way.

"On the 25th day of December, that's when they blew up Rev. Shuttlesworth's house," says Mrs. Walker. "And when I went to the meeting the next morning Rev. Shuttlesworth was the first thing I saw. And I knowed as how their house was blowed up, and I couldn't figure out how he was there. And I said then, that I'm going into it. And I went into it on that day."

More than 250 others "went into it" with Mrs. Walker. Twenty-one of them were arrested that day, one the following day. They were convicted and fined, and they then filed suit in federal court, in January, 1957.

The question of desegregating the buses wasn't over until late 1959. At that time, federal court rulings held the police were wrong in arresting Negroes who rode the buses integrated in 1958 and the Milwaukee couple who sat in the railroad station in 1959. But the segregation signs were still up, and by now ACMHR people knew that court rulings only come to life when people put their bodies on the line in a challenge to the old ways.

(14) John F. Kennedy, speech on television (11th June, 1963)

This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal; and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants, and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street.

And it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.

This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety.

Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis, men of goodwill and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics.

This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level. But law alone cannot make men see right.

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public; if he cannot send his children to the best public schools available; if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him; if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?

Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice; they are not yet freed from social and economic oppression.

And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.

The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.

The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South. Where legal remedies are not at hand, redress is sought in the streets in demonstrations, parades and protests, which create tensions and threaten violence - and threaten lives.

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative body, and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public - hotels, restaurants and theaters, retail stores and similar establishments. This seems to me to be an elementary right.

I'm also asking Congress to authorize the Federal Government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education. We have succeeded in persuading many districts to desegregate voluntarily. Dozens have admitted Negroes without violence.

Other features will also be requested, including greater protection for the right to vote.

But legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.

In this respect, I want to pay tribute to those citizens, North and South, who've been working in their communities to make life better for all.

They are acting not out of a sense of legal duty but out of a sense of human decency. Like our soldiers and sailors in all parts of the world, they are meeting freedom's challenge on the firing line, and I salute them for their honor - their courage.