Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow Laws are a part of American history, having been enacted at the state and local levels to mandate and maintain racial segregation in the southern United States. Public facilities followed these laws in order to abide by the “separate but equal” status used to classify black Americans at the time. Facilities set apart for use by black Americans were typically subpar, if they even existed at all. The  Jim Crow Laws essentially created the economic, social, and educational woes that blacks living in the South have been forced to live with for decades. To explore this concept, consider the following Jim Crow Laws definition.

Definition of Jim Crow Laws


  1. State and local laws that supported racial segregation, and discrimination against black people in the U.S. South, until they were finally abolished in 1965.


Mid-19th Century    named after “Jim Crow” – another name for “negro.”

What Were the Jim Crow Laws

The Jim Crow Laws were laws that supported the segregation of blacks and whites in southern American states, having been referred to as early as the 1890s. These laws protected and supported discrimination in such issues as bank practices, school segregation, and housing segregation, in which certain neighborhoods were designated as either “white” or “black” neighborhoods.

Examples of Jim Crow Laws in action include the physical segregation of public schools, public parks and beaches, and public transportation. It was also during this time that drinking fountains, restrooms, and restaurants were segregated, requiring “blacks” to use separate facilities.

One of the most notable moments in American history provided an example of Jim Crow Laws being disobeyed, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bust to a white man, as required the law at the time. Parks’ display of civil disobedience in 1955 spurned the Civil Rights Movement, leading activists into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was ultimately triumphant in desegregating bus transportation after a year’s worth of the group’s fervent efforts.

Prohibition against Interracial Marriage

Many examples of Jim Crow Laws concern the topic of interracial marriage. Individuals could have been fined or even imprisoned if they attempted to marry outside of their race during this troubled time in American history. This was finally reversed in 1967 via the landmark case Loving v. Virginia, wherein laws prohibiting interracial marriage were declared invalid.

In 1958, Richard Loving, a white man, took his pregnant lover, Mildred, to Washington D.C. to get married. The couple originally hailed from Virginia but had hoped to escape the rules of their state by fleeing to D.C. Upon returning home to Virginia, local police raided the Lovings’ home in the middle of the night, in an attempt to catch the couple having sex – an act that would have been a crime in progress. Instead, the police found the couple asleep in their bed.

Mildred directed the officers’ attention to the couple’s marriage certificate that hung on the wall, and the couple was brought up on criminal charges, with the certificate serving as evidence of their crime. If convicted, they faced between one and five years in prison. The Lovings pleaded guilty, and received a sentence of one year in prison, which would be suspended for 25 years if the couple left the state. The Lovings promptly relocated to the District of Columbia.

In 1964, Mildred wrote in protest to the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, expressing her feelings of frustration that the couple could not travel to Virginia to visit with family, and explaining that they were also experiencing social and financial strife in Washington. Mildred was referred to the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), which filed a motion on the couple’s behalf to vacate the Virginia trial court’s judgment, and to set aside the Lovings’ sentences, claiming that Virginia had violated statutes covered by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the couple’s convictions in June of 1967, ruling that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, which prohibited the interbreeding of people of different races, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

“Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival … The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Jim Crow Laws List

The following Jim Crow Laws list groups Jim Crow Laws by state. Note that this list is not inclusive of the entire Jim Crow Laws list for each state, nor is it representative of all of the states that had such laws on the books. These are only a handful of examples that show just how intrusive the laws that once divided this country’s citizens could be on their daily lives:

  • Arizona – In 1865, marriages between whites and blacks, “mulattoes,” “Indians,” or “Mongolians,” were declared
  • California – In 1872, the sale of alcohol to Indians was declared illegal.
  • Connecticut – In 1935, state law upheld racial segregation of schools, as originally authorized in 1869.
  • Illinois – In 1927, Chicago instituted racially segregated housing practices, which continued until they were ruled unconstitutional in 1948.
  • Indiana – In 1955, laws required that race be officially recognized on adoption petitions.
  • Kentucky – In 1960, a law was enacted that required voters’ races to be listed on their ballots.
  • Maryland – In 1904, law dictated that railroad companies designate racially segregated cars or coaches to whites and blacks (i.e. that each race would have its own car).
  • Nebraska – In 1929, a law was passed that prohibited marriage between a white person and a person of at least one-eighth Asian blood. This law was amended in 1943 to include anyone of at least one-eighth black, Japanese, or Chinese blood.
  • Nevada – In 1957, it was a gross misdemeanor for a white person to marry someone belonging to a “black, brown, or yellow” race.
  • North Carolina – In 1889, it was written that books were not to be exchanged between “white and colored schools,” and that whichever race possessed a book first would remain in possession of the book.
  • Oklahoma – In 1907, blacks were prohibited from using the same hearses as whites.
  • Rhode Island – In 1872, interracial marriage could be penalized with a fine of $1,000 or up to six months in prison.
  • Tennessee – In 1955, it was declared that white and black patients should be treated in separate buildings in hospitals for the insane.
  • Texas – In 1866, it was determined that all taxes paid by blacks would go to maintaining black schools, and the legislature was responsible for “encouraging colored schools.”
  • West Virginia – In 1873, it was declared that blacks were prohibited from serving on juries. This was overturned in 1880 in Strauder v. West Virginia.
  • Wyoming – In 1931, schools were directed to segregate their student bodies when 15 or more “colored” children were enrolled in a district.

Jim Crow Laws Example at the Supreme Court Level

Ending Segregation in Schools

Perhaps the most well-known of the Jim Crow Laws heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is the 1954 landmark case Brown v. The Board of Education. This was the case that finally brought an end to legislation at the top of the Jim Crow laws list, which segregated children in public schools, based on their race. It also overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the case that allowed segregation to be enforced at the state level in the first place.

In Brown, thirteen parents filed a class action lawsuit, on behalf of their 20 children, against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, calling for reversal of its segregation policy. At the time, the Topeka Board of Education operated under a Kansas law from 1879, which permitted, but did not require, districts to maintain separate elementary schools for black and white children.

The lawsuit came about when the third-grade daughter of plaintiff Oliver L. Brown was forced to walk six blocks every morning to her bus stop, in order to attend Monroe Elementary – her assigned segregated black school a mile away, when Sumner Elementary, a segregated white school, was only seven blocks from her house.

The NAACP directed these parents to try to enroll their children in the schools that were closest to their homes, and, as was to be expected, all thirteen families were rejected, and directed to segregated schools instead. The families then took action. Brown’s name was selected by the attorneys to headline the case. This was a legal strategy meant to assign a male figurehead to the forefront of the litigation, and the purpose of this move was, in the eyes of both the lawyers and the NAACP, to increase the chances that the case would be better received by the Justices at the Supreme Court level.

The District Court ruled in the Board of Education’s favor, citing the Supreme Court’s prior decision in Plessy, which required “separate but equal” segregated public facilities for blacks and whites riding in railway cars. The Brown case was then escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Court heard the case in the spring of 1953, it was unable to render a decision, and asked to rehear the case in the fall. The justices wanted more time to pay particular attention to whether or not the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited schools from operating separately and dividing their student bodies by their race.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous, and the credit for that goes, in large part, to Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had been appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower earlier that same year. Warren called a meeting of the justices, and posed to them this simple argument: the only reason anyone would uphold segregation is because he truly believed that blacks are an inferior race. Warren added that, if the Court was to overrule Plessy – and he believed that it should, in order to uphold its reputation as “an institution of liberty” – then it must do so unanimously. This would help to avoid a massive resistance from the South.

The Struggle to End the Effect of Jim Crow Laws

Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Charlotte, North Carolina, put together a school districting plan based on geographical neighborhoods, rather than race, and which allowed for voluntary student transfers. The plan was approved by the court has not grouping children based on their race. Because the majority of black students in the area lived in central Charlotte, they still attended mostly black schools. The NNACP filed a lawsuit against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, arguing that the district needed to proactively desegregate the schools.

An alternative desegregation plan was instituted, which required the busing of students to schools outside their neighborhoods, in order to more thoroughly mix black and white students. In this case, the Supreme Court held that this busing set-up was an acceptable solution to the problem of racial imbalance that still existed in schools. Ultimately, it was important to ensure that schools would be “properly integrated,” regardless of how this integration was carried out, so that the district’s students would all receive equal opportunities insofar as their education, no matter their race.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Class Action Lawsuit – A lawsuit filed by one person, on behalf of a larger group of people with a common interest in the matter.
  • Segregation – The act of setting someone or something apart from others.

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