Who and What was Jim Crow?

The short answer is that no one knows how the name originated. What is known is that in 1832 an entertainer born in Manhattan, Thomas Dartmouth “Big Daddy” Rice, wrote a song and dance he called “Jim Crow.” Rice applied blackface makeup and imitated slave dialect for his performances, birthing a type of minstrel show white audiences found highly entertaining. Six years later, the term was in common usage, if not a household word. But it would take more than half a century before it came to describe the South’s all-embracing legal and cultural Apartheid. It should be noted that “Apartheid,” or “separateness” in the Afrikaans language, was a system of laws based on “baasskap” (white supremacy) enacted by the white minority in South Africa in 1948. This authoritarian political culture which repressed blacks, “colored,” and Asians was terminated in 1994 after a world-wide boycott and massive internal resistance.

The American system of Jim Crow laws and customs did not originate immediately after the Civil War, or even for the next thirty years. Ironically, a series of Supreme Court decisions invited the development of restrictive race laws in the South. A Supreme Court case in 1883 virtually nullified the restrictive parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by subtle and ingenious criticism, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to the states, not to individuals. In 1890, the Supreme Court ruled that a state could constitutionally require that common carriers be segregated. However, the most significant decision was Plessey v, Ferguson (1896), which declared “legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts” and laid down the famous “separate but equal” dictum. Of course, most separate facilities in the South were anything but equal, especially schools. Finally, Williams v Mississippi (1898) completed the road toward disenfranchisement by ratifying the “Mississippi plan,” which essentially eliminated blacks’ right to vote.

C. Vann Woodward, a historian born in Arkansas, wrote an assessment with implications for today:

“The South’s adoption of extreme racism was due not so much to conversion as to the relaxation of opposition. All the elements of fear, jealousy, proscription, hatred and fanaticism had long been present, as they are present in various degrees of intensity in any society. What enabled them to rise in dominance was not so much cleverness or ingenuity as it was general weakening and discrediting of the numerous forces that had hitherto kept them in check–Northern liberal opinion in the press, courts and government, but also internal checks imposed by the prestige and influence of Southern conservatives, as well as idealism and zeal of Southern radicals.”

The North not only acquiesced to the “Southern way,” but often accepted or adopted Jim Crow practices, part of the rising tide of nationalism, manifest destiny and imperialism prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century. The Atlantic Monthly opined, “If the stronger and cleverer race is free to impose its will upon the ‘new-caught, sullen peoples’ on the other side of the globe, why not in South Carolina and Mississippi?” The Boston Evening Transcript of Jan 14, 1899 admitted that Southern race policy was “now the policy of the Administration of the very party which carried the country into and through a civil war to free the slave.” The New York Times conceded on May 10, 1900 most individuals ”no longer denounce the suppression of the Negro vote as it used to be denounced in the Reconstruction days. The necessity of it under the supreme law of self-preservation is candidly recognized.”

Woodward describes the “mushroom growth” of discriminatory laws during the first two decades of the twentieth century, mostly city ordinances or local rules and regulations, often without the formality of legislation. Mississippi and South Carolina, the most frequent outliers, went so far as to require segregated hospitals and black nurses for black patients. In time, a body of custom and law grew up dividing the two races and insuring that blacks occupied the lowest rung of society, creating a caste system equaled only by South Africa and India. Furthermore, Jim Crow laws vested the authority of the state or city in the hands of street car and railway conductors, bus drivers, and theater ushers, as well as enabling hoodlums and mobs to assault blacks in public playgrounds, parks, and swimming pools. Much statuary in the South was erected at this time to solidify white supremacy and remind blacks of their “place” in society.

The whole process was not unlike the way the Nazis’ restrictive laws closed in on European Jews, gypsies, and other “enemies of the state.” In fact, Jim Crow began to disintegrate only after World War II and the Nuremberg Tribunals found German leaders guilty of war crimes. The integration of the US armed forces in 1948 can be traced directly to this process. But it would take the Civil Rights movement (roughly 1947 – 1980) to remove the most egregious features of racial discrimination in America. Of course, we are still fighting racial bias today.

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Gene Betit

Retired intel analyst with Ph. D. in Soviet Area Studies from Georgetown, love to write. Two Defense Intelligence Agency studies, over ten magazine articles on Soviet military and strategic capabilities. Current publications include War's Cost: The Hites' Civil War, Manhattan's Walloon Settlers, Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid, and Forbidden, Forgotten, Formidable: Blacks in America's Wars.

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