Paralegal Guide: Jim Crow Laws
Section 20-54 of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 states, “It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person.” Laws such as these, particularly persistent in the South from the late 1800s until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, are known as Jim Crow laws: legislation meant to limit the freedoms of minorities, to restrict their access to voting, and most of all, to keep blacks and whites segregated.
The following are some essential descriptions of Jim Crow laws and their impact on U.S. legislation, accompanied by websites that delve into more detail. As this is part of a larger legal resource, full texts of actual legislation and Supreme Court decisions are provided wherever possible. However, many introductory materials and educational resources are also included, giving some historical context for this long legislative period. The presentation that follows is roughly chronological, including the end of the 1890s and the Black Codes (precursors to Jim Crow), a selection of examples of Jim Crow laws from Plessy v. Ferguson onward, and then a compilation of resources about Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other legal milestones that helped bring an end to the Jim Crow era.
After the end of the American Civil War, blacks were protected from slavery by the 13th Amendment. However, the transition of former slaves in the South from property to full citizenship was a sluggish one that took place over a hundred years. The first laws to limit the rights of African Americans were the Black Codes, which were enforced throughout the 1800s. The Black Codes largely derived from slave laws (in Texas, for example, black laborers were not allowed to swear in front of their white supervisors), ensuring that the standard of living for paid labor was barely better than slavery.
Because the Black Codes depended on the already-established infrastructure of slavery, they did not enforce segregation and limit voting rights as overtly as the later Jim Crow laws, a loose framework of state legislation that discriminated against minorities for the better part of the 20th century. Jim Crow laws were named after a musical number called “Jump Jim Crow” about a comic African American character, and were a reaction to the rising status of blacks, a group that, by the end the 19th century, was starting to exert its voting power and become a major part of traditionally white institutions. But in 1896 the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision set a precedent for state-enforced segregation, one of the defining characteristics of Jim Crow laws. The result was a set of laws, varying from state to state, that forbid blacks and whites to intermingle in businesses, public spaces, and schools, and allowed prosecution of couples for miscegenation.
- Jim Crow Timeline, from Schmoop Gamma, is a simple but comprehensive list of text entries starting with the 1870 decision in Virginia to force segregation in schools and ending with the 1967 ordinance in Saratoga, Florida to prevent mixing of races on a local beach. The timeline is part of a larger section on Jim Crow that provides a quick introduction to the subject.
- Mississippi Black Code, provided in full by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media of George Mason University, is one example of many state legislative pieces that established discriminatory laws against African Americans shortly after Emancipation. The Black Codes may be considered the predecessors to Jim Crow laws.
- Plessy v. Ferguson is the full text of the 1896 Supreme Court decision to allow states to decide on segregation laws, available from FindLaw. Plessy v. Ferguson originally applied to separation of blacks and whites on railway cars, but established the “separate but equal” precedent that justified Jim Crow laws from then onward.
- The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a PBS special project that primarily serves as a teaching resource and promotion for the television special, includes lesson plans, class activities, and online videos. Detailed articles accompanied by historic photos provide some background on the Jim Crow period.
Examples of Laws
The following are some of the most common Jim Crow laws:
- Whites and blacks were not permitted to intermarry in Arizona, Missouri, Mississippi, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Wyoming, Virginia, and elsewhere.
- School segregation was enforced in 17 different states before the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, including Florida, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Virginia.
- Blacks and whites were required to sit in separate sections on trains and public transportation hubs in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Alabama, and other states.
Nearly every public building, including hospitals, prisons, schools, and bus terminals, enforced strict segregation, as granted by Plessy v. Ferguson. Despite the racial discrimination inherit to these laws, African Americans could not be directly denied voting rights because of the 15th Amendment of 1870. However, as a further example of Jim Crow legislation, many were nonetheless excluded from the ballot by indirect means. These included literacy tests and poll taxes that targeted the poor and uneducated, all-white primaries that could legally exclude black candidates from the Democratic Party, and grandfather clauses. The latter were laws that exempted anyone whose descendents had voting rights before the 15th Amendment from poll taxes and other registration requirements: in effect, everyone but African Americans.
- An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, included as part of the University of Virginia’s “Contemporary Monacans homepage, is the full text of the 1924 anti-miscegenation law of Virginia. The law was the result of eugenics lobbyists who sought to define race and then prevent interracial coupling.
- Examples of Jim Crow Laws is the list of laws, organized by profession (nursing, etc.) and topic (intermarriage, etc.) that was originally published by the National Park Service. Excerpts from this list can be found on other websites, but this is the complete list.
- The Gilder Lehrman Center Online Documents of Yale University is one of the few places where one may find actual excerpts from Jim Crow legal documents. These include laws established in Alabama and Tennessee.
- Grandfather Clauses, Literacy Tests, and White Primary, from USLegal.com’s Civil Rights section, delves into the different ways that Southern states were able to prevent African Americans from both running and registering to vote in elections. The article is part of a short timeline of Voting Rights that covers the period between 1789 and 1975.
- Jim Crow, by Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University, is a long article that enumerates some of the most common, and most shocking, Jim Crow laws and how they were carried out. A link to pictures of signs designating separate rules and sections of restaurants is also available.
- Jim Crow Laws is a section of the Smithsonian’s “Separate is Not Equal” website with actual quotes from Jim Crow legislation and historical photos. Other sections about segregation and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education are also provided.
- Jim Crow Laws, from American RadioWorks, is the familiar list of short descriptions of Jim Crow Laws but organized by topic (marriage, education, etc.) and then by state. The descriptions are typically one to two sentences each, part of a larger Jim Crow resource that advertises a series of documentaries on the subject.
Desegregation and the End of Jim Crow
The Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against racial segregation in public schools throughout the United States, was one of the most high-profile cases of the era and led to a series of additional cases that, one-by-one, overturned most Jim Crow laws by the end of the 1960s. One of these cases was Loving v. Virginia in which an interracial couple from the titular state married in the District of Columbia, but was then prosecuted and banned from the state of Virginia for 25 years on the basis of race. The Supreme Court then found that laws forbidding miscegenation were unconstitutional.
Segregation in businesses, schools, and public areas, and discrimination against minorities and women in voting booths and employment applications lost official government sanction with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact end of Jim Crow laws as this act was enforced unevenly for many years and Jim Crow-like legislation, such as official policies of segregation by local governments, continued. Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Act passed by a vote of 290 to 130 in the House of Representatives and 71 to 29 in the U.S. Senate under the Johnson Administration and provided the foundation on which a number of important anti-discriminatory Supreme Court decisions were made.
Both Katzenbach v. McClung and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States cited the 1964 act in forcing two local businesses in the South to serve African American customers. In 1971, the Griggs v. Duke Power Company decision, citing Title VII of the Act, addressed employment discrimination, especially where it was found that companies imposed unusual requirements on its applicants to covertly discriminate against African Americans: in this case, by forcing applicants to prove their level of education. This practice was similar to the poll taxes and literacy requirements for voters in the South throughout the Jim Crow period that circuitously excluded African Americans (and poor whites) from voting and running for office.
- Brown v. Board of Education Topeka is both the syllabus and attached opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren from Cornell Law School. The 1954 Supreme Court decision brought an end to segregation in the nation’s schools, and was the symbolic beginning of the end for Jim Crow laws.
- Desegregation of the Armed Forces is a timeline of President Truman’s efforts to end segregation in the military between 1945 and 1953, and a record of his correspondence during that period. Lesson plans and images are also available.
- Griggs v. Duke Power Company, from FindLaw, is the full text of a Supreme Court decision to hold businesses responsible for indirectly discriminating against applicants by race through hiring practices based on criteria not applicable to the job. In the case of Duke Power Company, this involved a high school diploma and an IQ test.
- Katzenbach v. McClung, from Justia.com U.S. Supreme Court Center, is the full text of one of the first uses of the Civil Rights Act to desegregate a private business, in this case an Alabama restaurant. Interstate commerce laws were used to make the decision, which is similar to the Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States decision of the same year.
- Loving v. Virginia, the opinion of Chief Justice Earl Warren on the defense of the right of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, and interracial couple, to marry, is provided by Cornell University’s Law School. The syllabus and concurrence by Potter Stewart are also provided.
- Transcript of Civil Rights Act (1964) is available from OurDocuments and allows users to view images of the actual act or the text through HTML or PDF format. The Civil Rights Act marked the effective end of Jim Crow Laws, building on the momentum established in Brown v. the Board of Education.
- Transcript of the Voting Rights Act (1965), also available from OurDocuments, was instrumental in ending special requirements for voter registration, such as literacy, which was a primary means by which some Southern states excluded African American voters. One of the current controversies surrounding the Act is the requirement that voter ballots be provided in multiple languages.
Compiled here are a few peripheral resources that focus on the legal history immediately before the rise of Jim Crow laws and immediately after the legislation and Supreme Court decisions that helped reduce state-sponsored discrimination. Many of the resources here focus on the legal maintenance of civil rights so that Jim Crow-like laws do not become a reality in the future.
- Anti-Miscegenation Laws is a section of “Eugenics in America,” which in turn is a section of the Facing History and Ourselves association’s website. The organization seeks to spread awareness about racism, genocide, and other affronts to human rights in American schools with teaching materials and special presentations.
- Civil Rights, a legal definition of civil rights law from Cornell University’s Law School, gives a general summary of the key pieces of legislation and court decisions about the rights of minorities, women, and other groups starting with the Black Codes and ending with the Civil Rights Act. A separate tab provides an extensive list of both internal and external resources about civil rights law, including the American Civil Liberties Union and an annotated Constitution.
- Teaching With Documents: Lesson Plans doubles as both an educational resource and a way of accessing legal materials, all of which are integrated into the lessons. Of special note to anyone interested in Jim Crow laws are Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education, the Arrest Records of Rosa Parks, and Court Documents Related to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Memphis Sanitation Workers.
- U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is the current government organization responsible for investigations claims of civil rights violations. The website publishes transcripts of its regular meetings and keeps track of important legal documents and correspondence.