While no one can pinpoint for certain the origin of the term Jim Crow—some say it came from the name of a character in minstrel shows from the early 1800s—it’s used today to describe state and local laws that segregated blacks and whites after Reconstruction following the Civil War. Jim Crow laws were in effect from about 1877 to the 1950s. While Jim Crow laws were most common in the Southern states of the former Confederacy, racial segregation was observed throughout much the nation. For example, interracial marriage was outlawed in at least 30 states, twice the number of the states in the Confederacy.
Jim Crow laws varied from state to state, but all had the same end—the separation of the races. Separate accommodations were required for blacks and whites in schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, passenger trains, and even in prisons, sports teams, federal agencies and the U.S. military.
The three so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” to the Constitution—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—ended slavery, enshrined equal protection for all citizens including native-born blacks, and outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests for the right to vote. These Amendments were attempts to prevent racial discrimination, but all failed to stop the Jim Crow laws. In fact, some Jim Crow laws were actually upheld by the Supreme Court. In the lawsuit Plessy v. Ferguson, an attempt was made to overrule Louisiana’s law requiring separate passenger cars for blacks and whites. Plessy lost in every lower court, and then the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions, making “separate but equal” the law of the land. (Ironically, plaintiff Plessy was 7/8 white and only 1/8 black, yet he was legally banned from whites-only coaches.)
Among the greatest outrages of the Jim Crow era were laws preventing blacks and poor whites from voting—both groups tended to support Republicans in the South. Democratic politicians in state governments found ways around the Constitution, passing laws that again survived Supreme Court challenges (e.g., Williams v. Mississippi, 1898).
The United States began throwing off the stigma of legalized racial segregation through a series of federal laws and lawsuits that overturned the notion of “separate but equal” (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). In 1964, the federal government called out the National Guard to ensure black students could enter the University of Alabama, over the wishes of Alabama’s then-Governor George Wallace, who was famously blocking the doorway. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally put an end to Jim Crow laws, and nationwide public sentiment finally turned overwhelmingly against racial discrimination and segregation.
There is only one race, and that is the human race. God does not show partiality or favoritism (Deuteronomy 10:17; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9), and neither should we. If we treat a group of people with contempt, deny their rights, or relegate them to second-class citizenship, we are mistreating those created in God’s image. Racial segregation is wrong, even if it is enshrined by law.