The injustice of African Americans in the judicial system is undeniable. From minor crimes being blown out of proportion to the convicted receiving the maximum sentences offered, many of us wonder where in history did the laws wordlessly embed this treatment on others, long after slavery has been abolished and amendments promoting equality established. The answer to this question starts with the reconstruction era. This period in history’s purpose was to rebuild the South and free all slaves from their masters. The Reconstruction period lasted from 1865 to 1877 and proved to be extremely detrimental for African Americans. An example of how Reconstruction went wrong is the creation of Jim Crow Laws and how we still see the grips they had on African American lives to this day.
The creation of the laws can easily be pinpointed back to a specific event that took place during 1892 in Louisiana. An African American train passenger by the name of Homer Plessy broke Louisiana state law by refusing to be seated in the Jim Crow car; the only section of the train African Americans were permitted to travel in. His case was taken to court with the end result being a 7-1 approval vote from the justices for the creation of the Jim Crow laws.
Jim Crow laws were a series of laws that all followed the mentality of “separate but equal,” which when boiled down, simply means African Americans were allowed to leave the plantations and live their lives, but they certainly were not to be given the same rights as the whites. “The “separate but equal” standard established by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) lent high judicial support to segregation … Jim Crow Laws followed the strict rule of ‘separate but equal’ and in the eyes of the law makers, the only equality African Americans were allowed was to be free from being placed on plantations without choice and forced to live as a piece of property … From the jobs they were allowed to have to the water fountains they could drink from, African Americans were not treated with utmost equality like the reconstruction promised, but rather with the minimum respect all humans deserve. ‘The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as ‘Jim Crow’ represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the American South for three quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s. The laws affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants. ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Colored’ signs were constant reminders of the enforced racial order,’” (PBS).
To fully be able to comprehend the history of the Jim Crow laws, a basic understanding of the name is imperative. The term “Jim Crow” was originally a negative term for an African American but later when actors and traveling shows began partaking in blackface and mocking African Culture. “‘Jim Crow laws were named for an antebellum minstrel show character. The minstrel show is one of the first forms of American entertainment. The tradition began in February 1843 when a group of four white men from Virginia, who called themselves, the ‘Virginia Minstrels,’ smeared black cork on their faces and then put on a song-and-dance act in a small hall in New York City,” (Vastudies). Many whites found that the mockery of African Americans was something that could be taken lightly due to the newfound media attention and “comedic” approach. This not only lead to undermining the severity of racism but also degraded African Americans in the eyes of those around them.
Though Jim Crow laws have been abolished, we still see signs of African American mistreatment even in the 21st century. Its no secret that black males are more likely to punished with the maximum sentence or punishment for minor crimes as opposed to that of a white male, and this is all due to the prejudice law system from back during the reconstruction era. “”People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages … typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes,’ she tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.’ On Monday’s Fresh Air, Alexander details how President Reagan’s war on drugs led to a mass incarceration of black males and the difficulties these felons face after serving their prison sentences. She also details her own experiences working as the director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union,” (NPR). To this day, we still see the government revoking the rights of African Americans due to minor crimes. This even goes back to when Blacks were first given the right to vote. Many who would wait in line to place their vote would be arrested for loitering, and not much has changed in our judicial system even today. When those who are found to be in possession of drugs are tried and found guilty, there is a significant difference between the punishment of a white person, and that of a black. When Jim Crow Laws were established, many prejudice politicians and judges began to create fake crimes committed by African Americans just to keep them from gaining any rights beyond what the newly established laws allowed, and to this day, we still see the injustice inflicted upon the innocent by a system intended to protect all its citizens.
Many caucasians are placed under probation and are given a warning, but the African Americans are often placed in prisons to serve out the maximum sentence a judge can give for their particular crime. “The Jim Crow laws were finally abolished on 2 July 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson historically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It invoked the commerce clause, outlawing discrimination in public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965; effectively giving black people the vote,” (historyinanhour). Though the laws were abolished not so long ago, the fact that we still see signs of Jim Crow laws today proves that our nation has a true crisis on their hands that must be addressed before push comes to shove. To ensure the abolishment of all Jim Crow laws, whether embedded into the legal system or taught to us through the media, awareness is key. From simply taking a step back and becoming conscious of the comments and words others use to be hurtful or informing others of red flags of racism in the media, we can all make a difference to end the subconscious acceptance of Jim Crow laws in America today.
Article by Olivia Sparks and Konor Brown
“Jim Crow Laws.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedom-riders-jim-crow-laws/.
“Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America.” Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America | WBUR News, www.wbur.org/npr/145175694/legal-scholar-jim-crow-still-exists-in-
“The Jim Crow Laws – a Brief Summary.” History in an Hour, 4 Oct. 2013, www.historyinanhour.com/2013/09/23/the-jim-crow-laws-brief-summary/.