Jim Crow is the name associated with a system of white supremacy that required racial subordination and exploitation. Essentially, Jim Crow laws divested blacks of their citizenship rights. After the demise of Reconstruction in 1876 and passage of a new state constitution in 1890, Mississippi became the first post-Civil War state to deny blacks the right to vote, the most basic of citizenship rights. That constitution set in motion the restoration of the white supremacist planter class rule and the economic, political, and social exclusion of blacks throughout the South. Once slavery ended after the Civil War, Jim Crow’s purpose was to maintain or perpetuate a racialized labor force through debt peonage and the threat of violence in the agricultural economy. Maintaining this system reinforced the social construction of black inferiority, which then served as the basis for reality.
The term Jim Crow originated in a minstrel show song, “Jump Jim Crow,” of 1828, performed by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a “blackface” entertainer, whose caricature spawned imitators in minstrel shows everywhere. A white supremacist South embraced this ridicule and degradation. Jim Crow became more than performance art, as a rigid system of social exclusion and segregation became the centerpiece of the Jim Crow pattern of race relations in the South.
Segregation, or Jim Crow, became the system of exclusion that relegated blacks to a then-permanent subordination within a system institutionalized as legal doctrine. What began as an isolated case of permitting racially segregated schools in Boston in 1824 became a law of the land in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. In that Supreme Court ruling, the Court ruled that the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment was satisfied by the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Buttressed by this ruling, other Southern states followed Mississippi’s lead in instituting Jim Crow laws.
At the base of the Jim Crow system was an agricultural economy. Though slavery formally ended with the Civil War, agricultural demand for a servile labor force survived the “peculiar institution.” Central to Jim Crow were the previously established Black Codes. The Black Codes were a set of laws that bound blacks back to the fields following Reconstruction. The Black Codes required that blacks serve out labor contracts, often under their former masters. The purpose of these codes and Jim Crow was to maintain white supremacy, even to the extent that in all interactions blacks had with whites, it was mandatory they practice deference as a part of “proper” etiquette. The degradation of Jim Crow served not only to entertain whites by ridiculing blacks but also, more important, to economically exploit blacks.
- Johnson, Charles. 1943. Patterns of Segregation. New York: Harper & Row.
- Klarman, Michael. 2004. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Litwack, Leon. 1998. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Knopf.
- Mandle, Jay. 1978. The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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