George White was critically injured. But when surgeons in his Atlanta hospital found out he had black ancestry, they kicked him out mid-examination, shipping him across the street to a black hospital despite the pouring rain. He died in the overcrowded, underfunded hospital days later. The year was 1931, and like hundreds of thousands of other black people in the segregated South, White was a victim of Jim Crow segregation laws.
Between the 1870s and the 1960s, Jim Crow laws upheld a vicious racial hierarchy in southern states, circumventing protections that had been put in place after the end of the Civil War—such as the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote 150 years ago this week. The discriminatory laws denied black people their rights, subjected them to public humiliation, and perpetuated their economic and educational marginalization. Anyone who challenged the social order faced mockery, harassment, and murder.
The term has origins in the 1820s, when white comedian Thomas Rice created the character “Jim Crow.” The stereotypical character became both a stock figure in minstrel shows and a widely used nickname for black people.
After the Civil War ended, the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery in the United States. But white citizens in the former Confederacy resisted emancipation and quickly acted to deny black people their new freedoms. Using former slave laws as their template, they enacted “black codes” that denied black people everything from property ownership to free movement to business ownership. Historian Daniel A. Novak describes the codes as “intended to produce…a close approximation of the now forbidden master-slave relationship.”
In response to northern outrage about these codes, Congress passed constitutional amendments, now known as the Reconstruction Amendments, designed to guarantee the freedom and civil rights of formerly enslaved people. The 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment prohibited denying voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Southern states had to ratify the amendments to be readmitted to the Union. But though states grudgingly complied with federal law, they undid as few black codes as possible. Meanwhile, groups like the Ku Klux Klan intimidated and killed black people who challenged the now-unwritten laws of conduct.
In 1877, new president Rutherford B. Hayes followed through on a promise to stop federal intervention in the South. Swiftly, southern states reversed Reconstruction-era laws and established new segregation laws in their place. After the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” facilities legal in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the floodgates opened. Southern states implemented hundreds of laws mandating different treatment for black and white citizens.
Though the laws hypothetically guaranteed equality to black people, the reality was anything but. The separate facilities black people were forced to use were inferior and in poor repair. Social interaction between black and white people was all but forbidden. And despite the 15th Amendment’s guarantees, Jim Crow kept black people from the polls with taxes, literacy tests, and all-white primaries.
Upheld by discriminatory law enforcement and lynching, the laws came to dominate every facet of southern life, creating what historian Douglas A. Blackmon has called “slavery by another name.” Only with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 would the “separate but equal” doctrine be found unconstitutional. A decade later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with overt Jim Crow laws for good. But though the laws have disappeared, their effects still reverberate—and current practices of racial bias in law enforcement and other social arenas resound with echoes of Jim Crow.