The biggest disappointment in the 2004 elections was the so-called victory of the Bush administration. Another disappointment for progressives was that ultra-right Republicans strengthened their control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. However, one unfortunate outcome remains unpublicized. In the state of Alabama, voters failed to remove “Jim Crow” provisions from the state constitution.
The idea was presented as Amendment 2 on Alabama’s ballot last November. This amendment failed by a small margin, with over 1.3 million votes counted. Here are some of the things Amendment 2 would have accomplished, had it passed:
• It would have erased the requirement for “separate schools … for white and colored children” and specifying that “no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”
• It would have eliminated a requirement for poll taxes, which Alabama and many other Southern states used effectively for many years to keep most Blacks — and poor whites —- from voting.
• It would have removed language that said “nothing in the Constitution shall be construed as creating any right to education or training at public expense…”
Looking at this amendment compelled me to examine the history and nature of these “Jim Crow” laws.
It is believed that the term “Jim Crow” originated around 1830 when a white minstrel show performer, Thomas “Daddy” Rice, blackened his face and danced a ridiculous and demeaning dance, while singing the lyrics to the song, “Jump Jim Crow.” It is further believed that Rice created this character after seeing either a crippled, elderly Black man or a young Black male dancing and singing.
Rice incorporated the skit into his minstrel act, and by the 1850s the “Jim Crow” character had become a standard part of the minstrel circuit in America. It was one of many stereotypical images of Black inferiority in the popular culture of the day.
By the end of the century, the legal structure of racial discrimination toward Blacks and the actions stemming from them were often referred to as Jim Crow laws and practices.
Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation sprouted up, mainly in the South, in the late 19th century after Reconstruction and lasted until the 1960s. They originated from the Black Codes that were enforced between 1865 and 1866 and from segregation on railroad cars in northern cities before the Civil War.
Prior to the enactment of Jim Crow laws, Blacks enjoyed rights granted during Reconstruction. Gains included the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, these rights slowly disappeared after Reconstruction ended in 1877.
By 1890, whites in the North and South became less supportive of civil rights and racial tensions began to flare. Additionally, several Supreme Court decisions overturned Reconstruction legislation and furthered the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. The Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional and ruled that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit individuals and private organizations from discriminating on the basis of race. It was the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, however, that led the way in promoting racial segregation.
In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that required Blacks to ride in separate railroad cars from whites. Blacks protested and challenged the law. Homer Plessy, a Louisiana carpenter who was “seven-eighths” Caucasian, was chosen to test the constitutionality of the law. On June 7, 1892, Plessy boarded a train and sat in a car reserved for whites. He refused to move and was arrested. A local judge ruled against Plessy, and in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. It held that “separate but equal” accommodations did not violate Plessy’s rights, and that the law did not stamp the “colored race with a badge of inferiority.” The court provided further support for separate accommodations when it ruled in Cumming v. County Board of Education in 1899 that separate schools were valid even if comparable schools for Blacks were not available. This became known as the “separate but equal” concept.
Following the Plessy decision, Southern states passed laws that restricted Blacks’ access to schools, restaurants, hospitals, and public places. Signs that said “Whites Only” or “Colored” were posted at entrances and exits, water fountains, waiting rooms, and restrooms. Laws were enacted that restricted all aspects of life. They varied from state to state. In 1905 Georgia passed a law requiring separate public parks. In 1909, Mobile, Ala., created a 10 p.m. curfew for Blacks. In 1915 South Carolina adopted a law that restricted Blacks and whites from working together in the same rooms of textile factories, further dividing the workers.
These laws were often enforced by brutal acts of violence, known as lynchings, against Southern Blacks. During the period from 1889 to 1930, over 3,700 men and women were reported lynched in the United States, most of them Southern Blacks. Hundreds more lynchings and other acts of racial terror occurred throughout these years but went unreported. Numerous race riots erupted during the “Jim Crow years,” usually in towns and cities and almost always in defense of segregation and white supremacy. The riots usually erupted in urban areas where Southern, rural Blacks had recently migrated. In the single year of 1919 at least 25 incidents were recorded, with numerous deaths and hundreds of people injured. This period was so violent it was later referred to as the Red Summer of 1919.
By 1915, Jim Crow laws were slowly beginning to erode. Changes in the Supreme Court and subsequent court decisions, such as Buchanan v. Warley in 1917 and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, helped break down the legality of Jim Crow. The high court provided momentum for the growing civil rights movement that eventually led to the end of legal racial segregation.
Despite all of this progress, on Nov. 2, 2004, the residents of Alabama voted by a majority to keep these racist and discriminatory laws on the books. Here’s how far we haven’t come in this country.
James M. Bradford (firstname.lastname@example.org) works for a nonprofit agency in Philadelphia providing services to inner city youth, and is a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania/Delaware district of the Communist Party USA.