The American Civil Rights Movement: Jim Crow

Figure 1.--

The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. State Governments enactted what became known as Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was an a popular antebellum minstrel show character. The gains achieved by blacks during Reconstruction were gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and prevented them from voting in any significant numbers. They were no longer slaves and this in essential was a substantial imprvoment, in many ways--not the least in freedom of movement and stability of family relatinships. They were, however, denined basic civil rights and as a result any substatial economic opportunity.


After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government despite Southern critics, persued a soft peace. Southern soldeiers were allowed toi simply return home after afirming loyalty. Lee's soldiers after surrender were not even interned. The same was true of Johnston's soldiers in North Carolina who surrendered soon after. Blacks for the future. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). They resstricted the rights of Blacks and limited economic and educatioinal opportunities. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. Here the quarled with President Johnson (1864-69). President Grant was more supportive (1869-77). The central step taken was the passage of the 13-15 amendments which abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the right to vote, of the freed slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law. (The Emancipation proclamationThere was an execyive order and open to legal challenge.) The slaves were freed, Reconstruction brought great hope for change in the South. There were some considerable gains made. Schools were established and Blacks elected to public office. The Freedman's Bureau was established. After President Hayes (1877-81) withdrew Federal troops from the South, the white majority began to take away the civil rights that the freed slaves had briefly experienced.

Jim Crow: Minstrel Character

Jim Crow was an antebellum minstrel show character. Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment before the Civil War. It involved white etertainers performing in black face. A popular song and dance routein at those shows was "Jump Jim Crow". Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) "Daddy" Rice was noted for the routine. It was apparent based on a crippled black man in Cincinnati variously reffered to as Jim Cuff or Jim Crow. The song becae a huge hit. E. Riley published the song (1830s). Rice performed the piece all over America, stylig himself as Daddy Jim Crow. Thus Jim Crow became a widely accepted caricature of Afro-Americans. Thus the laws passed by sate legislatures to enforce segregation after the Civil War became known as Jim Crow laws.

Ku-Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan emerged after the Civil War during Reconstruction. It helped bring into power the White racist governments that constructed Jim Crow throughout the South. Having largely achieved this, the Klan disbanded when President Grant secured Congressional action on new laws to supress the Klan. Federal action and knowledge that with whites firmly in power, extra-legal action was no longer needed. The Klan would be later resurected in the 1920s and this time not just in South.

State Legislatures

The Vote

The 15th Amendment guaranteed the freed slaves the right to vote. The Constitution, however, places voting in the hands of the states/ And as the Federal Government began withdrawing troos from the South, state legislatures began enacting Jim Crow laws to get around the 15th Amdement. Many different strategies were used to prevent blacks from voting. One such method was the poll tax, charging voters a fee. Many black voters had troble paying a poll tax. Literacy tests wre mandated. This caused a problem, however, because mamy poor whutes were illiterate. Soithern states had very weak puvlic education systems. This led to the grandfather. Even if literate, you were allowed to vote if your grandfather had voted. This excluded balcks, however, as because almost all were slaves, theur grandfathers had not voted. And there were rigged literacy tests. Whites were asked easy questions are simply passed. Black were asked questions that a Rgodes Scholar woukd have trouble answering. These were just the legal methods of preventing blacks from voting. Ultimately intimidation or extra-leagl violence was used against those insustung in voting. Blacks were beaten or killed Lynching was a real problem. Meerly showing up at a polling station in the Sep South was rusky.

Jim Crow Legislation

The system enacted by state legilatures across the South was called Jim Crow. It was a racial caste system. It was primarily created in the southern and border ststes where slavery had flourished before the Civil War, but was not entirely limitef to those states. It was created by state law or municipal ordinances. It began to developed as the Federal Troops were removed from the states tht had joined the Confederacy. This was completed during the Hayes presidency (1877-81). Segregation was at first generally informal. State legislatures gradually passed Jim Crow Laws to formally segregate public facilities. Many of these laws were passed in the 1890s as race relation deteriorated. It was at this time that the infamous 'white' and colored' signs appeared. Under Jim Crow, blacks became second class citizens, eventually denied the right to vote. This also determined who served on juries as the lists were generally drawn from the voter registration lisrs. Intermarriage was made illregal. The Southern states had race laws before the Civil War defining just who was black which set limits on who could be enslaved. And there were many indentured servants who were often white. Deciding who was white and black was generally informal until the 19th century. As the slave system became more hardened, state legislatures began passing race laws. This generally meant people who were 1/16th black, but because slavery passed along matrilineal lines and there were freed blacks there was a range of variation. And as legal documents going back generations often did not exist. Thus there were numerous legal battles and the courts considered physical appearance, blood fraction, and community association to be relevant factors. After the Civil War the old slave codes were invalidated because slavery had been definitively abolished by the 13th Amendment. But as Jim Crow laws were passed, the state as with slavery had to define who was white and who was black to determine how individuals were to be classified. Generally the states used the same measure to define blacks as in slave daus--1/16 black ancestors. Here appearance had no force of law, only thevpersons ancestors. There were differences in Jim Crow laws from state to state, but essentially every aspect of life from birth in hospitals to burial grounds were covered by Jum Crow laws. The further south you went, the more comprehensive the legal system buttressing segregation became.


The Supreme Court countenced segreagation in the Plessy vs. Fergusson decission (1896) and a system of racial aparthaid enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until well after World War II (1939-45). The United States has changes so much since the 1960s, that young people today have no concept of the dimensions and complexity of the segregation system. There was no one segregation system because the segregation laws were state laws. Thus there were several different systems with differences which existed in each state. The system was not confined to the South. The mid-western state of Kansas, for example, had seggregated schools. The system was, however, most entrenched in the 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy. This was not a system enforced by genteel discrimination and social attitudes. It was enforced by laws. the courts, and the police. And to ensure that blacks did not attempt to assert their rights, there was a pervasive system of extra-legal terror conducted by the Klu Klux Klan, which in many cases, was a part of the local police structure. While there were differences from state to state, the primary purpose in each state was marginalize a group of Americans on the basis of race. The system as sanction by the Supreme Court in Plessy was based on the principle of "separate, but equal". But as administered in every Southern states was to ensure black people were given inferior servives and denied basic civil rights.

Share Cropping

Sharecropping is an agricultural system which developed in the Southern states during the Civil War. It was a farm tenancy system in which families worked a farm or section of land in return for a share of the crop rather than wages. Sharecropping replaced the plantation system destroyed by the Civil War. The victorious Federal authorities which occupied the South did not seize plantations, but empancipation meant that the owners no longer had a captive labor force. The former planters, even those activly engged in rebellion, for the most part still had their land, but no slaves or money to pay wages. The former slaves on the other hand did not have jobs or land and because they had been denied education, had few options. Sharecropping developed because the former slaves and planters needed each other. The principal crop continued to be cotton. And the planters under the sharecropping system contnued to a large degree to control the lives of the blacks working their land. While the system at first developed to obtain black labor, eventually poor whites also entered the sharecropping system. The system varied, but in many cases all the cropper brouht to the arrangement was his labor. The planter provided the land, but also commonly animals, equipment, seeds and other items. The land owners also commonly advanced credits for the family's living expences until the crop was harvested. The system was open to considerable abuse because the cropers were uneducated, commonly iliterate. Akmost all slaves in the Deep South following the Civil War would have been illiterate. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. By the 20th century black and white cropers would have had some minimal education, but iliteracy was still high. The land owner marketed the crop and kept all accounts. He charged interests on cash advances, often quite high interest. He also commonly operated a store where the cropers had to make their purchases. The normal arrangement was that the the croper got half the proceeds from the harvest. The landowner then deducted cash advances which because of high interest and dishonest accounting commonly left the croper very little. The system continued into the Depression of the 1930s. School portraits from the rural South during the late 19th and early 20th century will often include cropers children. Many did not go very far in school. (The Southern states commonly had very weak compulsory school attendance laws.) The children commonly were barefoot. During the 20th century many wore overalls. After World War II, migrtion to the North, farm mechanization, education, other employment options, and the Civil Rights movement brought the system to an end.

The Populists (1890s)

Perhaps the single most important reform movement in American history and one which seriously threatened the two-party system was the reform movement of the late 19th century. The reform movement was born out of the Panic of 1873. Farmers in the Mid-West and South were greatly affected by the Panic and did not benefit from the recovery as did the Eastern financial and industrial class. Farmers focused on the currency, but the Greenback Party had little success. The Popullist Party was founded on a platform of government ownership of the railroads and free coinage of silver (1891). The Populists nominated J.B. Weaver for President with a platform of major trforms (1892). He polled over 1 million votes and represented a major threat to the establish parties, especially the Democrats. Adopting some of the Populist reforms, the Democrats led by William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold speech captured much of the Populist vote (1896). The demise of Popularism in its Southern stronghold was the success of the Democraic Party in raising social issues--the race issue. They convinced Southern farmers and workers that Populist reforms meant integration and eventual Black dominance. This led to a generation of demagogic governors and legislators and the vicious racism of the early 20th century. This led to control of Southern state governments by the plantation class allied with mill owners and other industrial interests. Blacks were denied the vote and working-class whites voted to maintain the system out of fear of Blacks.

Confederate Flags

Every state had a state flag. The flags adopted for Condereacy were different than those flags and thus did not have any Conderate iconography. Of course when the Condederate states were accepted back into the Union they used the same ante-bellum flags. They would not have been allowed back into the Union id they had trid to add in Condeferate elements. This only began two decades lter when passions had cooled and the Condefderate states were carefully back into the Union. This began with North Carolina (1885). Eventually seven southern states introduce Confederate elements to their flags, some covertly with plausabile deniability, some overtly with the famous battle flag of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. As this became an issue with the succss of the Cvil Rights Movement, defenders if the Confederate Flag insisted Southern heritage was involved. Those concerned with Civil rights argue that it is actually a symbol of hatred and racism and that all had nothing to with heritage, but were relatively modern additions to the seven flags. South Carolina did not change their flag, but allowed the Confederate flag to be flown over the State House. We are not sure when Confederate flgs began to be displayed in the South at public gatherings. Most 19th century photography is studio photography, but the smapshot became common at the turn-of-the-century and we do see displays at this time.


Southern Jim Crow laws were premissed on two clearly discernable groups of people, blacks and white. This even by the 19th century was absurd. Large numbers of people had mixed ancestry. This was in large measure becuse slave owners could take advantage of their female slaves, both by force and by more subtle means. That this occurred is demonstrated by the large number of mullato children, including some who were indestinguishable from whites. The Southern states solved this problem by simply defining blacks as pople with any or a small fraction of black ancestors. The NAZIs when they drafted their Nuremburg Race Laws (1935. looked at Southern Jim Crow laws. There were other complications such as Native Americans. The Federl Government during the Jackson Administration had removed Eastern tribes beyond the Mississppi (1830s), but remanents remained as well as individuals with mixed ancestry. There were also small numbers of Asian Americans, although this was primarily a consideration in California. Mexican Americans lso experienced desrimination, but in the southwestern states. All of these complications were handled by each state and there were some differences. Despite the 14th Aendment, there was no intervention from the Federal Government until the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century.


Legal System

Jim Crow laws not only seggregated blacks and white in the South, but by denying blacks the vote, they denied many basic rights as citizens. The most apparent was fair treatment in the legal system. Local sheriffs and deputies were often Klan members. There were no black judges and blacks were not allowed to sit on jurries which were normally drawn from voting registers. Blacks not lynched faced very severe judgements in the courts. Those found guilty on often trumped up charges faced confinement in farm labor camps. Some times the county or state hired them out to local farmers or contractors--another form of slavery. One of the most well publicized incidents of how flimsy or false testimony and evidence was used against blacks, even children and youths, was the trial of Scottsboro Boys in Alabama.

Black Life in America

The Civil War was not fought because abolitionist sentiment dominated the American Republic, but President Lincoln turned abolition into a major goal of the War. The idea of black civil rights had even less support, but Republicans in Congress turned this into a reality with the the 14th and 15th Amendments. Reconstructon in the South tried to integrated the new freed blacks fully into American society. Terrorism persued by the Ku Klux Klan effectivly denied these rights to blacks in the southern states. Thus while blacks wee emancipated, many faced very restricted opportunities. Problems existed throughout the country, but were most severe in the southern states. There are relatively few photographic images of slaves. Daguerotypes were relatively expensive. The new CDV and cabinets cards were much less expensive, but only became available in the 1860s as the slaves were being liberated by the Civil War. Thus we have many more images of blacks in America after emancipation. These images provide fascinating insights into life for blacks in the period from Emancipation (1863-65) to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement after World War II.


The lynching and extra-legal terror aimed at Blacks in the South is one of the saddest chapters in American history. Blacks did not just face a corupt legal system, but they faced extra-legal terror, unprecedented in its viciousness. This meant in part the lynch mob. Some victims were burned to death. Most of the victims were young men, but women and children were also targeted. And there was no legal recourse. In fact Blacks who challenged the system were likely to invite a night-time visit from the Lkan themselves. Murder in most cases were state and local crimes and all-White Soutern juries did not convict Whites for killing Blacks, no matter what the evidence. The NAACP fought for years to get an anti-lynch law enacted by Congress. NAACP official Walter White who could pass for white, traveled throughout the South and North, at great personal danger, gatering information on lynching, sometimes even being invighting into the home of Klansmen. The resulting articles are chilling. [Janken] One of the great failures of he New Deal was the failure to enact an anti-lynching law. Here President Rooosevelt was afraid to endanger the New Deal by challening important Southern Congressmen.


The economic deprivation and terror caused a small numbers of blacks to migrate north and after World War I (1914-18) this migration increased significantly. While the free slaves were denoned basic civil rights by racist state gvernments after the Civil War, President Lincomn and the Republicans had ensured with the 13th Amendment that there would be no return to slavery. As bad as things becae n the South after Reconstruction, it was no meabns as bad as slavery. And no major difference was the end f restrictions on moveent. Black Americans could if they desired to, leave. And they began to do just that. The numbers began to reach large numbers with World War I. Eventually this migratin would significantly affect the demographic structure of the United States.

The Federal Civil Service

One of the few areas of Americamn life that remained open for blacks to compete on an equal basis with whites was the Federal civil service. This resulted from two circumstances. First except for the two Cleveland administrations, the Federal Government was in Republican hands for 50 years (1861-1913). The different Republican presidents had a range of attitudes toward blacks. Some were supportive, others paternalistic or indifferent. None were particularly hostile or committed to souther Jim Crow approaches. The other factor was the reforms carried out during the Arthur Administration establishing a merit-based civil service. The spoills system was ended and job seakers took competitive tests which determined along with other qualifications appointments. As a result, there was in the Federal agencies a substantial number of black employees, including positons in managerial and technical posts. This changed with President Wilson who had grown up in the South and won the election with a core of southern voters.

Boy Scouts

As in so much of American history, race has and continues to play an important role in Scouting. Race was as a factor in early American Scouting, especially in the South where early Scouters were determined to prevent black boys from entering the movement. The fact that the Baden Powell's Boys Scouts eventually decided upon an inclusive international approach to Scouting meant that to participate that an exclusive white program could not be mauntained, despite the attitudes of many in the movement. William D. Boyce who founded the Scouting movement in America was adament that it should be open to boys of all races and creeds--but his view was not shared by many. The BSA and YMCA alike were guided by adult volunteers who held socially progressive organizational goals. While their were some socially conservative elements interested in organizing a more overtly milataristic organization, the role the YMCA played in the early years of the BSA helped to imprint it with the YMCA stamp of social progressiveness. Enrollment patterns gave preference to middle-class boys in the early going. This was because these boys were the most interested and their parents could afford the program, all making organization easier. Later, both the BSA and YMCA reached out to lower-class youths, but with less favorable results. The leadership alternatingly displayed condescension and defeatism toward these poorer boys, and these youths often found the BSA and YMCA culturally alien. The BSA faced an even more difficult challenge when it came to black youth, especially in the South. Even in the north, Scouting in America from the beginning was a highly segregated activity. This is in part because many of the early sponsors were schools (many of which were segregated by law or demographic patterns) and churches (except for the Catlolics are among the most segregated institutions in America). Until the 1970s, fewer blacks than whites have particiapted in Scouting. A factor here is cost. We suspect that that there are other factors as well, some relating to why Scouting has had less appeal to the working-class in England. Many of the blacks that have participated have done so in largely black troops. This continues to be the case today. In fact Scouting is one of the most segregated youth activity in America. This is not because of BSA policy, but because of econonomic, cultural, and demographic trends in America.

Economic Impact

As with slavery, there we people who benefitted from the segragation system. Land owners got a population that was forced to accept low earnings as share croppers or agricyltural workers. Employers could hire blacks at low wages for jobs whites didn't work. Housewives could afford cheap maids. As a whole, however, the suppresion of such a large group of the population, adversely affected the economies in the South. It was no accident that 100 years after the Civil War, that the South was the poorest, most depressed area of the United States. It is true that blacks received extremely low wages, but was often lost in the segregionist cant was that most white workers also received extremlu low wages--the lowest in the country. The low wages of black workers in effect depressed the wages of white workers and the economy as a whole. I remember our neighbors in South Carolina. Their mother was a lovely elderly lady living in a trailer park. She had worked for years in the mills. When she retired in the the 1970s afyer years of working, she had a pension of $15 a month! It was not just black people who were abused by the South's seggregation system.


CIH -- Civil War

Navigate the CIH Civil War Pages:
[Return to Main American Civil Rights background page]
[Return to Main American Civil Rights page]
[About Us]
[Biographies] [Campaign] [Causes] [Emancipation] [Families and youth] [Fiscal policy] [Formations and units] [Law]
[Railroads] [Reconstruction] [Slavery] [Soldiers] [Uniforms] [Weaponry]
[Return to the Min Civil War page]
[Lost Cause] [Segregation] [Civil Rights movement]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: 1:57 AM 8/27/2004
Last updated: 5:20 PM 6/17/2017