Jim Crow Laws, Slavery and White Supremacy

Jim Crow Laws, Slavery and White Supremacy

Alexander Sinni, December 2016

The fight for citizenship for African Americans in the 19th century was a hard fought and drawn out battle. White Americans still saw African Americans as inferior to them and believed that they did not deserve the rights and privileges that go along with being an American citizen. The fourteenth amendment was ratified during July of 1868 and African Americans gained citizenship including recently freed slaves. African Americans had finally gotten what they had worked so hard to accomplish and under the law they were finally just as much a citizen of the United States as any white American. This was until states started to pass Jim Crow laws defying the ratification of the fourteenth amendment. The Jim Crow laws looked to preserve white supremacy through law after the south lost the civil war. Did Jim Crow laws prove that the pen is mightier than the sword?

The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment was made to put a final stop to inequality based on race in the United States. The ratification was also made in order to protect African Americans from states who were still bitter about losing the civil war. “The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. The amendment authorized the government to punish states that abridged citizens’ right to vote by proportionally reducing their representation in Congress.” (1). The ratification was made during a time of great racial tension through the country and especially the deep south. Angry white Americans believed that something needed to be done about this, except this time they would not be fighting with guns and swords. They needed something much more powerful, the law.

State by state white supremacy was forged through Jim Crow laws, replacing the old laws of slavery with new laws of segregation and prejudice. Legally, Americans could not own slaves anymore but they could make life as miserable as they could for African Americans and they did. Jim Crow laws segregated African and White Americans in every way they possibly could in schools, restaurants, public transportation, bubblers, restrooms, cemeteries, hospitals and that is only to list a few examples. One way to legitimize how laws are to be interpreted is through case law and this is how Jim Crow laws came to have so much power.

A very important case regarding the power of Jim Crow laws was Plessy v. Ferguson. This case’s routes started with a Jim Crow law in Louisiana that states a “separate but equal” law regarding white and blacks use of the railroads in Louisiana. African American Homer Plessy refused to sit in a Jim Crow cart which broke the law of Louisiana and he appealed his case to the supreme court arguing that it violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendment. The supreme court disagreed with the argument, validating segregation and therefore validating Jim Crow laws along with White supremacy. “The first section of the statute enacts “that all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races.” (2). This dictated that whites and African Americans were different and therefor they should have as little interaction with one another as possible, a racially motivated action giving white supremacists what they want. This provides a clear interpretation of the law stating that there is a difference between white and Americans and it shall be enforced. “Any passenger insisting on going into a coach or compartment to which by race he does not belong, shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars, or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison.” (2). Just for sitting on the wrong side of the train African Americans can be imprisoned. Power is given to white Americans in this section and freedom is taken away from African Americans.

Another case plays a key part in the power given to southern states who sought out to bring Jim Crow laws to another level with the validation of the Supreme Court. The notion “Knowledge is power” is something that people in favor of Jim Crow laws knew, to strip a person of their education is to limit the power they may gain. In the case Cummings v Richmond Board of education the supreme court justifies segregation in schools as well having an all-white high school when there is no money to supply a separate but equal high school for African Americans. There was a tuition in order to attend the all-white high school and that is why they could afford to have one, where African Americans could not afford to pay to send their children to high school. “We think we have shown that it was in the discretion of the Board to establish high schools. It being in their discretion, they could, without a violation of the law or of any constitution.” (3). This allowed other states to do the same exact thing to African Americans who did not have a large income. They stripped them of their education through the law. “Separate but equal” now no longer applied to schooling, before this communities were supposed to provide equal educational opportunities to both African American and white. Taking away education is the same thing as taking away African Americans ability to fight back. African Americans could not change the law if they were not educated and they were not being educated because of the law. That is a harder war to fight than a war with bullets and cannons.

In order to successfully oppress people, there are some things that need to be done. Fear must be struck into those being oppressed and hope must be taken away. Jim Crow laws successfully did both of those things to African Americans. People who supported white supremacy needed to prove that the law was on their side and would not protect African Americans. “Segregation and disfranchisement laws were often supported, moreover, by brutal acts of ceremonial and ritualized mob violence (lynching’s) against southern blacks. Indeed, from 1889 to 1930, over 3,700 men and women were reported lynched in the United States–most of whom were southern blacks.” (4). Lynching’s sought to control African Americans showing them that this is what happens when you try to vote or try to stand up for your rights as an American citizen. Not being punished for conducting these lynching’s proved a much more powerful message to the people of the south. Whites couldn’t be touched for harming African Americans.

Jim Crow laws were put in place to make sure that people of color and white citizens had little to no contact with one another and preserving white citizens as superior to African American citizens. “The Negro had not been segregated merely for political or race advantage, but…for his good and the country’s good, and speaking broadly, for our own salvation.” “A white North Carolina U.S. senator explained in 1906. After more than 95 percent of African Americans lost their right to vote because of the poll tax and literacy test imposed by his state.” (5). This was the mindset of the time of political leaders during the Jim Crow Era. Segregation was not only good for the country but it also was good for the people being segregated. He also admitted that part of the reason for segregation was for race advantage, white supremacy through law and politics. Making it so that 95% of African Americans could not vote is just as powerful as any whip a slave owner could use. Jim crow laws once again took away the voice of African Americans, just as slavery had. “Whites having the title of “master race” and people of color having nothing but low wages, hard work, and very few chances for improvement.” (5). This does not sound all that different from slavery, besides getting any wage at all. Jim Crow laws enabled whites to be able to treat African Americans almost as bad as they did before the civil war. African Americans still did all of the undesirable jobs that whites did not want to do. Jim Crow supporters had the blessings of the Supreme Court and the law on their side. There was not much that they could not get away with in this era.

Jim Crow laws and its relation to white supremacy and civil rights is something that changed that course of our nation’s history. This is a topic that is sensitive to many Americans, mostly because they are ashamed of this part of the United States history. However this is something of importance that everyone should be educated about. Jim Crow laws put our country in the wrong direction after the civil war, going against the prime reason for the war, slavery. Although slavery was not legal under Jim Crow, African Americans weren’t exactly “free” either. Jim Crow laws enabled white Americans to presume authority and precedence over African Americans solely based on race.

The Supreme Court at the time allowed this to happen, empowering white supremacy to reign over southern states. Jim Crow laws were successful in their intentions for segregation and maintaining a hierarchy of race. The ratification of the fourteenth amendment was tarnished by Jim Crow, proving to the nation that just because the south lost the war, that they were not going down without winning the final battle. The Jim Crow Era showed us that often times the old saying of “The pen is mightier than the sword” is often true. There is no need for blood and war when you can accomplish supremacy through pen and paper.


1. “Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, & Fifteenth Amendments”. The United States Senate. http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/CivilWarAmendments.htm

2. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896). https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16038751515555215717&q=jim+crow+laws+and+segregation&hl=en&as_sdt=2006

3. Cumming v. Richmond County Bd. of Ed., 175 U.S. 528, 20 S. Ct. 197, 44 L. Ed. 262 (1899). https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=9369385047999541928&q=cumming+v+richmond+county+board+of+education&hl=en&as_sdt=2006

4. Davis, Ronald L.F. “Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay”. http://www.hatboro-horsham.org/cms/lib2/PA01000027/Centricity/Domain/374/Jim_Crow_Era-Lynching.pdf

5. Tischauser, Leslie V. Jim Crow Laws. Santa Barbara, California. ABC-CLIO, LLC. 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=whk2vBbjHp4C&lpg=PP2&ots=3kJ3GSzYjp&dq=jim%20crow%20laws&lr&pg=PR14#v=onepage&q&f=true

Further Reading
Smith, J. D. (2002). Managing white supremacy : Race, politics, and citizenship in jim crow virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Schultz, M. R. (2005). The rural face of white supremacy: Beyond jim crow. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. doi:10.5406/j.ctt1xcndc

Worcester State University Fall 2020