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What are Jim Crow laws and when were they abolished?

Conjuring up images of a minstrel show character these laws represented a dark era of legalised racial oppression in the United States.

Demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd hold up placards as they face a police line near Lafayette park accross the White House on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. - Anti-racism protests have put several US cities under curfew to suppress riotin
OLIVIER DOULIERYAFP

Jim Crow laws were a web of state and local statutes enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries across the American South. These laws enforced racial segregation and discrimination, severely limiting the opportunities and freedoms of African Americans. The laws earned the moniker from a perjorative term for African Americans.

In essence, Jim Crow emerged from a combination of failed reconstruction post-civil war, resurgent white supremacy, and a Supreme Court decision that sanctioned segregation. These factors created a system of legalised discrimination that would oppress African Americans for nearly a century.

Jim Crow in action

Jim Crow manifested in the physical separation of races. Laws mandated separate schools, restrooms, restaurants, and even drinking fountains for Black and white citizens. The Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 upheld this “separate but equal” doctrine. However, the “equal” part of the equation was a cruel fiction. Facilities designated for African Americans were consistently inferior and underfunded, perpetuating a system of unequal opportunity.

The reach of Jim Crow extended far beyond physical segregation. Literacy tests and poll taxes were used to disenfranchise Black voters, effectively stripping them of political participation. Discriminatory practices in employment limited job opportunities and economic advancement for African Americans.

The long road to legal equality

Jim Crow laws cast a long shadow over the South for nearly a century until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s challenged these discriminatory statutes.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public spaces and employment, while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discriminatory voting practices. These landmark pieces of legislation dismantled the legal framework of Jim Crow.

While the Civil Rights Acts marked a turning point, the legacy of Jim Crow continues to be felt in American society today. Racial disparities persist in areas like education, housing, and criminal justice.