During the pre-Civil War era, Black slaves were treated as less than human. The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 declared that people of African descent were equal to three-fifths of their White counterparts, and the One-Drop rule ensured that having even a drop of African blood was a mark on inhumanity. Even freed Blacks were mistreated, denigrated, and more often than not, unable to advance in status or wealth. However, the entertainment business was one of the few industries in which there was a demand for Black workers. White audiences of all classes enjoyed theatrical events called “minstrel shows,” where Black performers would sing and dance, evoking some of the common stereotypes of their race. Minstrels often portrayed a common character, the “Sambo”:
In the early 1900’s images and songs portrayed a simple, docile, laughing black man: the Sambo. This image became one of the classic portrayals of black men in film. Care free and irresponsible, the sambo was quick to avoid work while reveling in the easy pleasures of food, dance and song. His life was one of child-like contentment.
– from the documentary “Ethnic Notions” (1986), directed by Marlon Riggs
The most famous “Sambo” was not actually Black, but a White actor who performed in black-face. Thomas “Daddy” Rice (also known as T.D. Rice) began to alight the stages of the South in the 1820s, wearing ragged clothes and with shoe-grease covering his face in an exaggerated imitation of black skin. He played “Jim Crow,” a hunched-over, dancing man who sang in a nearly unintelligible dialect. Jim Crow became wildly popular, and was an emasculating caricature of Black men, both freed and enslaved.
For many people in the North, this was the only image of Blacks available. Slavery was banned in most states above the Mason-Dixon line (the southernmost end of Pennsylvania), yet people of African descent were still second-class citizens (in that they were not considered citizens at all). With so little exposure to real Blacks, many Northerners began to view the Jim Crow caricature as a reality, which further dehumanized Blacks everywhere.
The end of the Civil War in 1865 was the beginning of an era known as Reconstruction, in which the newly emancipated slaves were, for the first time, able to live as equal citizens under the law. During this time, more Blacks were elected to public office than in any time in American history (even today), and the establishment of many Black colleges—such as Fisk University in Nashville, TN and Shaw University in Raleigh, NC—intellectualized Black communities, enabling students to seek work in a number of fields, including academia.
Reconstruction, however, was short-lived. In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President of the United States. Despite having fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, Hayes succumbed to Congressional pressure and dealt a drastic blow to civil rights by reinstating “home-rule” in the South. With the South no longer garrisoned by Northern troops, the laws protecting former slaves ceased to be enforced. A new set of laws was put in place throughout the nation, aptly named the “Jim Crow Laws,” for Rice’s popular character.
The Jim Crow Laws established racial segregation in thousands of public places, as well as in the personal lives of citizens. Blacks and Whites could not sit together on buses or at lunch counters, attend the same schools, or even marry each other. White doctors were not obligated to treat “colored” patients, and hospitals were required to separate White patients from Black.
Jim Crow defined the Black experience in America for decades. The South was a dangerous place for Blacks, particularly for those who spoke out for equality or embraced the few rights they had left, such as their freedom of speech. “Lynching” became a common practice for putting outspoken Blacks in their place, and their slain and desecrated bodies often hung on display for weeks, as a warning to others. The “Sambo” image had dissipated by the start of the 20th century, replaced by a more brutish portrayal of Black men; They were seen as predators and rapists, violent threats to the purity of the White race.
In 1955, the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi became one of the most publicized lynchings in history. Till was 14 years old when he posthumously became the face of the anti-Jim Crow movement. On vacation from his home in Detroit, Till was staying with his Uncle Mose Wright in Money when he supposedly whistled at a young White woman, Carolyn Bryant, outside of a general store. In tandem with the “brute” archetype, Till was seen as a threat. A week later, Till was kidnapped and horrifically beaten by Bryant’s husband and friends, before being left for dead in the Tallahatchie River.
The NAACP launched an investigation into Till’s murder at the bequest of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley. Images of Till’s disfigured body were released to the public when his funeral featured an open casket, shocking the nation across ethnic lines. This was one of the major incidents that gave leverage to Civil Rights groups working to end Jim Crow, rallying support from sympathetic Whites, especially within the Jewish community.
The Civil Rights Movement was ultimately successful in ending the Jim Crow Laws, after decades of organized protest and activism. By utilizing nonviolent civil disobedience, activists were able to break down racial barriers, often sacrificing their own safety for the sake of the movement. Boycotts and sit-ins led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Greensboro, NC and public transportation in Montgomery, AL. Supreme Court cases like Brown v. Topeka Board of Education struck down the idea that “separate” could be “equal,” and required schools to integrate their student bodies.
As many small victories as there were, nationwide change did not arise until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With these Acts, the Jim Crows Laws were officially put to an end, yet their effects are felt even now. The stereotyping of Blacks remains prominent in popular culture. Television programs and films are rife with negative imagery akin to the 19th century Sambo, Mammy and Brute, just to name a few.
Jim Crow does not simply signify a set of discriminatory laws, or a racist phenomenon of the stage; It is a term imbued with prejudice and hatred, and the sad truth that for many centuries, people were judged by the color of their skin over the content of their character.