Jim Crow Laws

In 1828, a white minstrel performer, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, traveled all over the country performing the song "Jump Jim Crow." "Jim Crow" became a pejorative term for African Americans.

While the popularity of the performer faded, the term had lasting effects. It became associated with segregation laws that started in 1865 and continued into the 1960s. Now, lawmakers still pass a handful of laws addressing racial segregation. This article gives a brief history of Jim Crow laws legislators passed after the Civil War and the modern interpretation of those laws.

Segregation and Jim Crow Laws

The purpose of Jim Crow laws was to separate white people and Black people. Restaurants, hospitals, public schools, and prisons had to have separate facilities for white and black citizens. One famous example of this is the bus segregation laws. Rosa Parks was required, as an African American, to sit at the back of the bus. She did not, of course, and that helped lead to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Although these laws were mainly associated with Southern states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, they weren't exclusive to the South. Nearly half of the 50 states in the U.S. had segregation laws. For example, Wyoming had laws prohibiting marriage between white persons and other races. In California, Black men were not allowed to testify for or against white men.

Today, people refer to any laws designed to segregate any racial group as Jim Crow laws. They have used these laws to segregate Asians, American Indians, and other racial groups in American history.

Civil Rights and Jim Crow Laws

The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s helped combat Jim Crow laws. African American civil rights heroes included Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Barbara Johns, Charles Evers, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown. These heroes brought down laws segregating schools, lunch counters, and bathrooms. In 1965, the Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It prohibited institutionalized discrimination and segregation. The U.S. government asked to tear down "Whites Only" signs.

Voting and Jim Crow

Requiring separate facilities for Black and white people was bad enough. But there were other tragedies of the Jim Crow era, including the roadblocks that prevented Black Americans from voting. Finally, after activists held numerous demonstrations, some even ending in violence, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965.

The Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and provided for federal oversight of election laws. It also authorized the Attorney General to investigate discriminatory voting practices, such as voter fraud and voter suppression. This Act eliminated poll taxes and reduced discriminatory gerrymandering. For the first time, Black voters had the means to challenge voting restrictions. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black voter turnout has substantially increased.

Modern Forms of Jim Crow Laws

Authorities have eliminated the most egregious Jim Crow segregation laws, but you will still hear references to certain laws or practices as Jim Crow laws. Modern forms of Jim Crow laws include the following:

Felony Disenfranchisement

According to Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," Jim Crow-type laws are resulting in the incarceration of African Americans. While Black people and white people both commit crimes, Black people are more likely to be found guilty and more likely to serve prison terms.

According to statistics, nearly 30% of the male African American population has a felony record. Since felony conviction is an automatic disenfranchisement in most states, Michelle Alexander sees this as a form of a Jim Crow law.

Racial Gerrymandering

Racial gerrymandering refers to defining voting districts to lessen or eliminate a minority's voting power. For example, Republican or Democratic political authorities may divide a large community of Black voters into several districts, each with a majority of white voters. This practice leaves too few Black voters in any one district to elect a preferred candidate. This was common practice in some states.

To help combat this type of discrimination, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1982 to address the discrimination in gerrymandering. This led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Thornburg v. Gingles, where the court found that the North Carolina redistricting plan discriminated against Black people in six voting districts.

In more recent times, racial gerrymandering has once more risen its head. The 2013 Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In particular, Section 4 asked jurisdictions to undergo preclearance before changing their election laws.

The decision of the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder cited that preclearance no longer reflects present voting conditions. Since the decision, state legislatures passed new voting laws requiring voter ID and allowing gerrymandering.

Polling Place Requirements

Another form of Jim Crow laws is polling place requirements, such as voter identification. Before 2008, no state required voter identification to vote. As of April 2024, 19 states require photo identification, and 16 states accept non-photo IDs. Some argue that these laws suppress the votes of socially disadvantaged individuals on a lower economic scale. In particular, those who may not have proper identification documents.

Concerned That You Are a Victim of Jim Crow Laws?

While most states have eliminated Jim Crow laws, that doesn't mean that racial discrimination has gone away. If you believe that you've been a victim of racially discriminating laws, seek legal help. A qualified civil rights attorney will be able to examine your situation and provide you with the information that you need.

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You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer's Help

If you experience the effects of discriminatory voting laws or practices echoing provisions of Jim Crow, it's crucial to remember that you can seek legal help. This is true whether it's through systematic discrimination or unjust voter registration practices. A civil rights attorney can provide you with the support and guidance that you need to challenge these injustices. Reach out to a civil rights attorney to better understand your rights and take the necessary steps toward seeking justice.

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