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Jim Crow Laws

A set of new laws, known as Jim Crow Laws, was passed in the Southern states, and imposed racial discrimination and segregation against black people. The term "Jim Crow" originally referred to a black character in 1800s minstrel shows in which white performers wore "Blackface" and pretended to be black.

Although slavery had been abolished, many whites at the time believed that blacks were inferior and sought to support their belief through religious and scientific rationalizations. The U.S. Supreme Court was inclined to agree with the white-supremacist judgment, and set the stage for Jim Crow Laws with several of its decisions. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, and ruled that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit individuals and private organizations from discriminating on the basis of race.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that required blacks to ride in separate railroad cars. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a carpenter in Louisiana who was 7/8 Caucasian, boarded a train and sat in a car reserved for whites. He refused to move and was arrested. The local judge ruled against Plessy and in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling. It had held that "separate but equal" accommodations did not violate Plessy's rights. With the Supreme Court approval, the Plessy decision paved the way for racial segregation.

Southern states passed laws that restricted African American's access to schools, restaurants, hospitals and public places. Signs that said "Whites Only" or "Colored" were posted at entrances and exits, water fountains, waiting rooms, and restrooms. By 1914, every Southern State had passed laws that created two separate societies- one black, one white. By World War I, even places of employment were segregated.

Other Jim Crow Laws did not specifically mention race, but were written and applied in ways that discriminated against blacks. Literacy tests and poll taxes, administered with informal loopholes and trick questions, barred nearly all blacks from voting. Though more than 130,000 blacks were registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896, only 1,342 were on the roles in 1904.

By 1915, the strength of Jim Crow Laws was slowly eroding. In 1915 the Supreme Court in Guinn V. United States, ruled that an Oklahoma law that denied the right to vote to some citizens was unconstitutional. In 1917, in Buchanan V. Warley, the Court upheld that a Louisville, Kentucky law could not require residential segregation. In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas must admit a black man, Herman Sweatt, to the law school on the grounds that the state did not provide equal education for him. But it was the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown V. Board of Education that overturned the Court's decision in Plessy, Holding that separate schools were unequal.

The Court provided momentum for the growing Civil Rights Movement, and a march on Washington by over 200,000 in 1963 dramatized the movement to end Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 finally ended the legal sanctions of Jim Crow.

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