Jim Crow in America refers to the period after the Reconstruction Period all the way to 1960s. Jim Crow era was characterized by what was referred to as the Black Codes. The codes were nothing but informal rules that were used by colonial masters to force Blacks to work in their plantations as slaves. Jim Crow period is one of the darkest periods in the history of African Americans. At this period, Blacks in America would be racially segregated and discriminated in all sectors be it in education, health, accommodation or in transport, they would also be attacked, beaten and even be lynched. Lynching of blacks was said to be a means of social control but that was just an excuse to execute them in fact, lynching was a new form of entertainment where the whites would gather, mock, laugh and enjoy the lynched Blacks struggle to death. To change the politics of the day, the Black population had to do something and this was done by use of various methods and strategies under the leadership of the then enlightened Blacks. The main focus of this paper will be to discuss in depth on these forms and strategies that African Americans used to challenge Jim Crow laws.
The paper starts with a brief introduction which is simply an account of the events that were going on during this era. The paper then proceeds to discuss about the strategies that Blacks employed to end white’s leadership. It also highlights about the prominent figures that led the Black population in this fight and ends with a conclusion which is a recap of the main points that have been discussed.
As mentioned here above, Jim Crow laws trace their roots to Black codes whose prime goal was to enforce slavery. The reason why the whites resorted to Black Codes was because they had almost been forgotten especially after the Blacks were given some civil rights during the Reconstruction Period. At this time the Blacks would be allowed to participate in political systems such as voting and would also own some pieces of land that formerly belonged to their masters. They were given these rights under the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments. These rights were also enforced by the 1866’s Civil Rights Act. The Southern whites were not amused by this and soon they ganged themselves up against the Blacks subjecting them one of the most trying moments in the history of Blacks.
According to Marx (1998), after the end of the Reconstruction Period in 1877, the southern whites under a political group of people known as Redeemers would use terrorist acts to win control of the Southern States from the Northern Republicans. Eventually, they were able to take control of these states and their legislature. Using these legislations, they were able to strip blacks of all the rights they had acquired during the Reconstruction period thereby marking the beginning of the Jim Crow era.
The Southern Democrats used their power to control African Americans by using a terrorist group known as Klu Klax Klan and apart from the Black codes, the whites introduced other new laws for example, one had to pass a certain literacy test to be allowed to vote thus many blacks being illiterate, they were denied an opportunity to vote. Another method that the whites used to subjugate the blacks was through the introduction of legally instituted poll tax to ensure that they would continue working in their farms so as to get money to pay their poll tax (Healey, J. F. 2006). By 1890s, the blacks were segregated almost in all sectors. Though they were heavily suppressed by the whites and their pleas fell on deaf ears, they tried to challenge this leadership by instituting legal actions against them on grounds that all forms of corruption were prohibited by the 14th Constitutional Amendment. Despite this provision, the Supreme Court dismissed their claims that though state segregation was not allowed, segregation in businesses and on individuals was not prohibited. Though the blacks were not favored by the Supreme Court’s ruling, they never lost hope in the fight against their civil rights abuse and for this reason they continued to fight for them up to the end. The truth of the matter was that Jim Crow laws were met with open defiance and resistance (Healey, J. F. 2006).
During Jim Crow era, interracial sex and marriages were not allowed and the whites propagated many beliefs with an aim of quashing any form of relationship that seemed to crop up. These laws ensured that all the Blacks remained at the bottom of the hierarchy and this was done through the use of violence and suppressive laws. Again these laws prohibited whites and blacks from shaking hands on pretext that Blacks would assume they were equal with the whites. Blacks were not to attend same schools, hospitals, use same means of transport and if this had to happen, then Blacks were supposed to give their seats to the whites and seat or stand at the back incase the bus was full. These transport laws were enforced by the Louisiana’s law, Separate Car Law of 1890s which adhered to the principle of ‘separate but equal.’ (Fredrickson, 1996).
In a bid to end segregation, African Americans led by their leaders used various methods and strategies for example, they would go to courts, hold protest marches like the famous march to Washington, hold sit-ins, they would also boycott public means of transport, would form various freedom movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the NCAAP and UNIA and would choose not to obey the laws.
The suppressed Blacks would also challenge these Jim Crow laws in courts although many are the times they lost but despite this, they were still able to end some forms of racial segregation and discrimination. For example in 1915 in the case between Guinn Vs United States, segregation law that denied them a chance to vote was revoked on grounds that it was unconstitutional. Then in a court case Buchanan vs. Warley, all forms of residential segregation were outlawed. Under Louisiana, Kentucky law, African Americans were not allowed to live in the same neighborhood with the whites especially in areas where the whites were the majority. The Supreme Court of United States argued that though this segregation law seemed to be legitimate, it denied the very rights that the Blacks were guaranteed by the 14th amendment of the constitution. (Fredrickson, 1996)
Again in the case Sweat vs. Painter of 1914, the law that segregated the Blacks and denied them to enjoy equal opportunities with the Whites was deemed to be unconstitutional. In this case, Marion Sweat had been refused to be enrolled in Texas law school because of the color of the skin and instead was enrolled in another new law school that was meant for the Blacks. The Supreme Court outlawed this law citing the reason that the law schools that were meant for the Blacks did not meet the minimum law requirements. Still in another case, Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, separate but equal doctrine that was applied in both elementary and high schools was challenged in court. In the nullification of this law, the Supreme Court of USA said that this segregation law made the blacks to look inferior to whites and that it impaired Black’s educational opportunities (Healey, 2006; 226)
Another method that was used by the blacks to challenge Jim Crow laws was by organizing protest marches along the streets of the major towns. These marches were very common in the period between 1950s and 60s, the most famous of them being the march to Washington. Blacks also organized boycotts for example the one that resulted in 1st December after Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white person as it was required by the social etiquettes of the day. This led to her arrest something that provoked the conscience of the African Americans who responded by one of the most famous bus boycott, the Montgomery Bus Boycott which affected the country’s economy forcing the white powers to reconsider their decision and finally the revocation of this segregation law on public transport. (Healey, 2006)
Another method that the Blacks used to challenge these laws was by conducting sit-ins in public restaurants. According to Jim Crow laws, Blacks were not supposed to wine and dine with the whites in the same restaurant but the blacks would still go to these restaurants though would not be served. The major sit-in happened when four high school students went to a restaurant to eat lunch but were not served. Instead of leaving, they decided to stay there until evening. The next day they did the same but the funny thing was that the rest of the students had heard of the news and were doing the same elsewhere. “Student sit-in movement (was) launched by four young African Americans at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960. Within weeks the movement had spread to other cities notably Nashville.” (Marqusee, 46)
The other strategy that was used was the formation of freedom movements that proved very good in bringing the black population together. An example of these freedom movements was the Civil Rights Movement which was led by Martin Luther King Jr. the movement was geared towards fighting for the civil rights for the Blacks. The most pressing issue that led to its formation was racial segregation and discrimination that was perpetrated by the Whites against the Black population (Marqusee, M., 2005). Civil Rights Movement was very vibrant in organizing boycotts, protest marches and what was generally referred to as civil disobedience. This movement gained momentum in the 1950s especially after the Montgomery bus boycott and remained vibrant all the way up to 1965 when the Civil Rights Act was finally enacted. This movement owes its credit to Martin Luther king Jr. whom without his courageous, outstanding leadership and his oratorical skills, no such progress would have been made. King is most remembered for organizing the protest march to Washington and giving the ‘I have a Dream Speech’.
Another leading figure whose role he played in ending Jim Crow laws cannot be overlooked is W.E.B Du Bois. This was an African American sociologist and Historian whose work laid the foundation on which the civil rights were grounded. Through his Niagara Movement, Du Bois advocated for direct confrontation on the issues that affected the Blacks unlike his companion Booker T. Washington who advocated for more accommodative approach to the white leadership. He asked the Blacks to humble themselves arguing that they would finally succeed in life and be free. (Davis, Ronald)
The other leading figure was Marcus Moziah Garvey, a black nationalist born in 1887 and died in 1940. He once organized the workers in a printing company to strike due to low wages they received. In 1912, he went to England to stretch his horizons a bit and then returned home to form a movement that was known as Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914.
In short, African Americans in confronting racial segregation and discrimination, they employed various methods and strategies which in the end proved to be successful. For example they would march in the streets to express their dissatisfaction, show overt civil disobedience, organize protest marches and formed freedom movements. This was because during Jim Crow era, the blacks would be attacked, beaten and lynched under pretext that they were breaking the laws. Due to the way they were treated, the Blacks left with no other good option had to devise ways on how they would confront the Whites’ leadership but this was not without the much needed help that was offered courageous, intelligent, focused and reliable leaders to guide and show them the way forward.
Davis, Ronald L. F. The History of Jim Crow: From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview. Available at http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/overview.htm
Healey, J. F. 2006. Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. 4th Edition. Pine Forge Press
Fredrickson, G.M. 1996. Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa. Oxford University Press US.
Marqusee, M., 2005. Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s. Revised Edition.
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Marx, A.W. 1998. Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of South Africa, the United States, and Brazil. Cambridge University Press.