Here is one example of a state law enforcing segregation in Alabama: “No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro [sic] men are placed.” In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that state laws enforcing racial segregation in private businesses was constitutional under the principle that segregation was legal so long as blacks and whites were granted equal public accommodations (the “separate but equal” doctrine).
However, blacks and whites were not granted equal treatment. Blacks were denied jobs, access to good schools, and were forced to sit behind whites in public transport facilities. In addition to legal separation, racial segregation included a set of beliefs that whites were superior to blacks in terms of intelligence and morality.
Violence was often used to keep blacks beneath whites in the racial hierarchy. To give a few examples of Jim Crow etiquette: blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together, but if they did, whites were to be served first; a black male was not supposed to offer his hand to a white male, because that implied social equality; blacks were always supposed to be introduced to whites, and not vice versa.
Racial segregation did not only exist in the South, but was a national phenomenon. For example, the United States Armed Forces remained segregated until the 1950s—white and black units were kept separate, and black units were led by white officers.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in education was inherently unequal, thus overturning the longstanding Plessy doctrine. Civil rights legislation in the 1960s outlawed discrimination in employment, education and housing. Despite these laws, de facto segregation remains a powerful force in American life.
Subjected to discriminatory laws and segregation for over eighty years (1877-1960s), African Americans’ political and economic rights and opportunities were severely disadvantaged and negatively impacted by Jim Crow. Many of these effects are still felt today.
Housing and Property
Racial segregation in housing was the result of local, state, and federal laws and policies, restrictive covenants, and overt discrimination against blacks. For example, government acts such as the G.I. Bill of 1944 provided low-cost mortgages, but denied all grants to red-lined, “high risk” areas, where African-Americans lived.
Because blacks were prevented from moving into white neighborhoods due to discriminatory real estate practices and restrictive covenants which prohibited the sale of real estate to blacks, they were effectively limited to poor urban neighborhoods. Segregated housing directly affected the education and employment opportunities, health outcomes, and economic status of African-Americans.
Segregated schools were more often than not unequal. Black students in black schools often had substandard curricula, less resources and lower quality teachers and facilities. In some rural areas, most black schools offered a shortened school term so that children could be let off earlier to help weed and pick the cotton fields.
At the college level, segregation led to the development of black private and public colleges in the South, often supported by the federal government. Some of these higher education institutions taught curricula at the secondary level because no public high schools for black children existed. Although successful black high schools and excellent black colleges produced many African-American leaders, segregated education in general severely curtailed the economic opportunities of blacks.
These factors are compounded by poverty, lower employment rates, and lower quality education. For example, the following findings—among others—have been made: the rate of infant mortality for African-Americans was significantly higher than for whites, the death rate for southern blacks was much higher than for whites, and only cancer and diabetes, among the leading causes of death, killed more whites than blacks.
Voting, Prisons, and Employment
Many Southern states imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other methods to disenfranchise the black population. Significant numbers of African-American men were also disenfranchised and exploited by way of the criminal justice system. For example, it was common for blacks to be arrested, often guilty of no crime, and released under parole into custody of land-holders to work as farm-hands without pay.
As a result of their incarceration, former prisoners were legally disenfranchised and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Segregation in employment, in addition to the significant effects of a segregated education and employment implications of having a criminal record, also produced higher rates of unemployment and lower wages for African-Americans compared to whites.
Origins Of Jim Crow, And “Separate But Equal”
The term “Jim Crow” originated in a minstrel show in the 1830s depicting a negative caricature of a black person, and became a popular stereotype of black inferiority in U.S. culture by the 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow represented the system of racist laws that relegated African Americans to the status of second class citizens from 1877 to the mid-1960s.
Despite initial efforts, the federal government abandoned its efforts to protect African Americans’ civil rights in the South in exchange for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes receiving the presidency in the Compromise of 1877. The withdrawal of a federal presence in the South and the federal government’s promise not to interfere with state practices regarding blacks led to Jim Crow.
Although segregation had been established before 1896, the Supreme Court validated the practice in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In Plessy, Homer Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites in railway cars, arguing that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the opinion of the Court, Justice Brown stated that the Act did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because state-mandated racial segregation was constitutional so long as the separate accommodations for blacks were equal to those for whites—the “separate but equal” doctrine. The Court went on to say that the Fourteenth Amendment did not guarantee social equality, but rather only political equality before the law.
Following the Court’s validation of “separate but equal” laws, the remaining Southern state passed laws mandating segregation on railroads. Racial segregation spread to all aspects of life, including education in primary, secondary schools and colleges, employment, housing, the military, public transportation, and public places.
African Americans were severely disenfranchised and prohibited from marrying interracially. In addition to laws and practices, Jim Crow also subjected African Americans to a set of social rules based on and meant to uphold white superiority. For example, whites were to be served before blacks if they ate together, a black male was not supposed to offer his hand to a white male, and blacks were always supposed to be introduced to whites and not vice versa.
Under Jim Crow and until the 1930s, violence against African Americans increased in the form of lynchings and mob violence. Such lynchings often were committed as capital punishment without the sanction of law for crimes that were fabricated or exaggerated. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the era of segregation gave way to the Civil Rights Movement.
J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith were young African-American men who were murdered in a spectacle lynching by a mob of thousands on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. They were taken from jail cells, beaten, and hanged from a tree in the county courthouse square.
They had been arrested that night as suspects in a robbery, murder and rape case. A third African-American suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob; an unknown woman and a local sports hero intervened, and he was returned to jail. Cameron later stated that Shipp and Smith had committed the murder but that he had run away before that event.
The local chapter of the NAACP had tried to evacuate the suspects from town to avoid the mob violence, but were not successful. The NAACP and the State's Attorney General pressed to indict leaders of the lynch mob, but, as was typical in lynchings, no one was ever charged for their deaths, nor for the attack on Cameron.
Cameron was later convicted and sentenced as an accessory to murder before the fact. He served some time in prison, then pursued work and an education. After dedicating his life to civil rights activism, in 1991 Cameron was pardoned by the state of Indiana.
The three suspects had been arrested the night before, charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his girlfriend, Mary Ball, who was with him at the time. A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, pulled out the three suspects, beating them and hanging them. When Abram Smith tried to free himself from the noose as his body was hauled up, he was lowered and men broke his arms to prevent such efforts.
Police officers in the crowd cooperated in the lynching. A third person, 16-year-old James Cameron, narrowly escaped death thanks to an unidentified woman who said that the youth had nothing to do with the rape or murder.
A local studio photographer, Lawrence Beitler, took a photograph of the dead men hanging from a tree surrounded by the large lynch mob; the crowd was estimated at 5,000 and included women and children. He sold thousands of copies of the photograph in the next ten days.
Mary Ball later testified that she had not been raped. According to Cameron's 1982 memoir, the police had originally accused all three men of murder and rape. After the lynchings, and Mary Ball's testimony, the rape charge was dropped against Cameron. He said in interviews that Shipp and Smith had shot and killed Claude Deeter.
Flossie Bailey, a local NAACP official in Marion, and Attorney General James M. Ogden worked to gain indictments against leaders of the mob in the lynchings, but the Grant County grand jury refused to return an indictment. Attorney General Ogden then brought charges against four leaders of the mob, as well as bringing impeachment proceedings against the Grant County sheriff who had refused to intervene. All-white Grant County juries returned "not guilty" verdicts for all of the leaders charged.