In Context

The Jim Crow Era

During the Reconstruction era immediately following the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed a series of constitutional amendments to guarantee civil rights to freed slaves. The 15th amendment (1870) said that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of "race, color or previous condition of servitude." In the two years immediately following, the nation elected one black senator and seven black representatives. And hundreds of thousands (possibly one million) black male voters registered to vote.

However, these advances in civil rights were short lived. Many whites in the South, especially in places where they were outnumbered by blacks, were threatened by African-Americans' new power to elect legislators and other officials. By 1877, segregationist whites were using a combination of violence, intimidation and fraud to reduce the number of black voters. As whites regained control of the government, they gerrymandered voting districts to make it less likely for blacks to be elected. In The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, Armstrong recollects and old footage shows images of police brutality. State troopers tear gassed crowds and beat marchers with billy clubs. Amelia Boynton Robinson recalls being pushed into a cop car and carted off to jail. James Armstrong remembers a time when he, his wife and their daughter, who was 13 years old at the time, were all in jail at the same time.

By the 1890s, Southern state legislatures were passing "Jim Crow" laws that explicitly enforced racial segregation. The specifics of the laws varied from state to state, but all mandated separation of whites and blacks in public facilities, such as schools, parks, theaters, libraries, hospitals, restaurants, trains and buses and even cemeteries. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson affirmed Jim Crow by asserting that separate facilities were constitutional as long as they were equal. Not until it issued its 1952 Brown v. Board of Education decision would the U.S. Supreme Court finally declare that "separate" was inherently "unequal."


There were many ways that Southern states worked around the 15th amendment to deny black men the right to vote. Many states required poll taxes and literacy tests, while others established elaborate voting systems, continually rescheduling and delaying voting times. An all-white board of registrars would sometimes pick a section of the U.S. Constitution at random and ask prospective black voters (many of whom had received little schooling) to read and explain the section. In some areas, a black person who wanted to vote was required to find several white men who would vouch for his "good character."

The laws proved effective. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African-Americans in Mississippi were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904.

By the 1950s, blacks and sympathetic whites began to organize and pressure state and local governments through sometimes coordinated, sometimes separate actions including marches, protests, sit-ins, rallies, boycotts, voter registration drives and "freedom rides." While there would later be splinter groups that advocated responding to violence with violence, the initial movement used tactics of civil disobedience and embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance.

Among the organizing groups were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a coalition of black churches known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Their efforts would eventually result in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Caption: The vote means first class citizenship
Credit: Photo still from The Barber of Birmingham

» American RadioWorks. "Remembering Jim Crow."
» Facing History. "Episode 5: Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964)."
» History Matters. "Testimony of Hosea Guice, Milstead, Macon County, Ala."
» PBS. "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow."
» Smithsonian National Museum of American History. "White Only: Jim Crow in America."
» The United States Department of Justice. "Before the Voting Rights Act."