In the late nineteenth century, white Southerners imposed a system of constraints on African Americans, denying blacks their Constitutional rights, and, indeed, their human rights. This system—often violently enforced—was called “Jim Crow,” named after a minstrel song that stereotyped blacks. It included the disfranchisement of black men, the forcible segregation of blacks from whites in public spaces, and forms of state-sanctioned terrorism such as lynching, which included hanging, mutilating, and burning victims alive.
“Jim Crow” shaped the South’s judicial and public education systems, employment structure, and patterns of landownership. Black people were limited to the most menial kinds of jobs, and sharecroppers found it difficult if not impossible to escape chronic indebtedness to their landlord-employers. In effect, white Southerners were determined to replace the institution of slavery with a new set of constraints enforced by white judicial officials, politicians, religious leaders, and lynch mobs.
For their part, African American Southerners protested “Jim Crow” by forming advocacy organizations, educational and religious institutions; boycotting and protesting against segregated facilities; and moving north.
The “Jim Crow” project included the creation of a white identity based in part on the glorification of the “Lost Cause”— the myth that before the Civil War, the south was an idyllic place populated by gracious planters and contented slaves. The Lost Cause found tangible expression in the many statues and other memorials dedicated to the Confederacy and the soldiers who fought for it.
The erasure of slavery and “Jim Crow” from the historical record has distorted the teaching of U. S. history in both the South and the rest of the country. As communities finally begin to discuss and remove remnants of the Confederacy from public spaces, it is vital that all of us confront and fully understand this history.
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Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery, Disfranchisement in the South. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001
Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South, edited by William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, Robert Korstad. New York: The New Press, 2014
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Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Granite Stopped Time: The Stone Mountain Memorial and the Representation of White Southern Identity,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 1 (SPRING 1998), pp. 22-44
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Kenneth O’Reilly, “The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 17 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 117-121
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Stephen A. Berrey, “Resistance Begins at Home:The Black Family and Lessons in Survival and Subversion in Jim Crow Mississippi,” Black Women, Gender + Families, Vol. 3, No. 1 (SPRING 2009), pp. 65-90
National Humanities Center, The Making of African American Identity
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, the website of this PBS special has stories, maps, documents, and activities for teachers.
You might also like these NEP articles on Slavery and its legacy in the US and further reading on Confederate flags, monuments, and historical myths.