The Civil War between the Union (the north) and the Confederacy (consisting of eleven southern states) in the United States of America lasted from 1861-1865. The central theme of the war was that the Union was opposed to slavery and the Confederacy supported slavery. The end of the Civil War marked the end of slavery. But discrimination against blacks was far from over.

Most of the states of what was formerly the Confederacy passed the Jim Crow laws. These laws were meant to restrict the rights of blacks. The basis of these laws was a certainty that white people were superior to black people and therefore, no mixing among them was acceptable.

Slavery had ended, segregation was firmly in place.

Who was Jim Crow?

Laws usually are named after the person who is instrumental in writing them. The Jim Crow laws are an exception. Jim Crow was not a real person.

In the late 1820s, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice developed a character in a minstrel show in which he coloured his face black with burnt cork and wore tattered clothes. He named this character “Jim Crow” and performed a song “Jump Jim Crow”. According to some accounts, Rice, who was a struggling artist at this time, had come across a black person singing this song and included it in his performance.

This fictional character conformed to the perception of African Americans that a lot of whites held. He was illiterate and a crook. Rice’s performance became very popular. He, and the copy-cats acts his performance spawned, helped cement the stereotype of blacks as beings stupid, lethargic, and somehow less human. With time, “Jim Crow” became a commonly used derogatory term for African-Americans. This popular depiction of blacks made it easier for whites to accept that blacks deserved to be separated from the superior whites.

The Laws

Anyone with even a suspicion of a black ancestor, even many generations ago, was considered a person of colour for the purpose of the Jim Crow laws. These laws had the backing of the Supreme Court. ‘Separate but equal’ facilities were declared lawful in 1896 by the court.

The Jim Crow laws covered all aspects of life. However, there was no single overarching law that was in play. Rather, there were different laws enacted in different states. African-Americans couldn’t attend the same schools, eat in the same places, or use the same entrances to public buildings as whites. They couldn’t mingle with whites in shops, restaurants, public transport, cemeteries and several other places. Public bathrooms were also segregated.

Some of the laws placed restrictions on the types of jobs that African Americans could work in. They often got the menial and low-paying jobs. Some laws curtailed property ownership. Blacks were often not able to vote because some of the laws designed to test the literacy of blacks were very stringent. Other than the requirement of literacy, there were other laws in different states which prevented blacks from voting. Inter-racial marriages were out of the question. If these laws were broken, the official punishment was fines or imprisonment. However, lynching of blacks who broke these laws was a real possibility. White mobs that carried out these brutal acts were allowed to go scot-free.

Separate But Equal

Officially, the underlying principle of these laws was a ‘separate but equal’ status for African Americans. According to law, the facilities for blacks and whites, though separate, were supposed to of the same quality. Practically, the truth was very far from this concept.

The equality was only in name. In some states, the front half of seats in a bus were reserved for whites and the back half for blacks. In practice, white passengers were not denied entry even after the seats reserved for them were fully occupied. They continued to be seated in the back half of the bus, on the seats reserved for blacks. It was a common sight to find a bus with white passengers occupying the majority of the seats, with many of the African Americans standing in a small space at the back of the bus.

Places of entertainment like theatres and restaurants had low quality seating for blacks. Some of them completely refused to serve them. Even in places where they were served, they often had to wait till all the whites had been attended to. The black schools had a shortage of facilities and the educational materials. The teachers were underpaid.

The result of these laws was not just all-round humiliation that African-Americans felt every day, but also severely limited opportunities for progress. With below par education and with job opportunities that were so restricted, the possibility for getting ahead in life was virtually non-existent.


Change began gradually in 1948 with President Harry Truman’s executive order, to eliminate racial discrimination in all branches of the military. Blacks started challenging these inhuman laws. These struggles finally led to the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This act abolished the Jim Crow laws.

Universal applicability of the lessons learned from
the Jim Crow laws

Racism is not the only injustice that the world is battling. Discrimination happens at big and small levels everywhere-in our schools, in playgrounds, in our offices and in our homes. The scale is smaller, but the effect on individual lives can be just as damaging.

Privilege is difficult to understand for those who actually enjoy those privileges. Sometimes privilege is not the presence of special opportunities but just the absence of paralysing hurdles. People are able to carry out the most heinous of injustices against their fellow human beings by being in a state of constant denial about the true state of inequality in society.

Though these laws are a thing of the past and were particular to the United States of America, discrimination is a universal phenomenon. It is important to learn from history, because it repeats itself, sometimes in the same form and sometimes in new contexts. As William Faulkner said,

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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  • By Ben Shahn (1898–1969) - Library of Congress: Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security
  • Administration-Office of War Information Photographers; Location: F-9063; Reproduction Number: LC-USF33-6392-M4, Public Domain,