The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

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The Congress

By Tsahai Tafari

Jim Crow was a system of segregation and discrimination practiced in Southern and some border states soon after the Civil War. The exact origin of the name is not known, though it is likely to come from a minstrel of the early 1800s. Of the three branches of the federal government, the legislative was most effective in enacting and maintaining discriminatory laws that kept Jim Crow alive well into the 1960s.

The Compromise of 1877 decided the outcome of the controversial presidential election of 1876 through a series of back-room discussions between Congressmen and private interest groups, and resulted in the retreat of the federal government from enforcing the 14th and 15th amendments for blacks. The Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act in 1875, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, but there was a national backlash against civil rights that led to the Supreme Court's nullification of the Civil Rights Act in 1883. North and south began a period of reconciliation, characterized by acquiescence on the part of Northern liberals and government officials to the desires of the white south to institutionalize its discriminatory and racist beliefs.

Many Southern blacks had become politically active after the Civil War, but after 1877, most lost the right to vote or to hold government positions. In 1878, the Congress forbade the use of the Army to protect black voters from the intimidation and physical violence with which they were regularly threatened at the polls. By 1894, Congress ceased appropriations for federal marshals to protect black voters; meaning blacks were vulnerable to intimidation and threats of ex-confederates. In 1901, the last black representative lost his seat in Congress. It would be 30 years before a black person could gain a seat in the House or Senate.

During the early part of the 20th century, the Presidents and the Congress worked together to decrease the number of federal appointments to blacks and to ensure that federal officials in the south were sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy. During the early years of the Wilson administration (1913-1917), the Democratic Representatives submitted more racist legislation than had been introduced to any previous Congress. Disfranchised and demoralized, few blacks voted during these years, leading to an even greater indifference of both parties to the black vote. The Republicans did not need black votes to control Congress, and Democrats did not care about a black constituency.

When legislation was introduced to protect blacks, Democrats convinced Republicans to join them in their disregard for civil rights and suffrage for blacks. Congressman L.C. Dyer of St. Louis submitted an anti-lynching bill in 1922 that was shelved when Southern Democrats threatened a filibuster in the Senate. Southern Democrats regularly blocked the efforts of a few liberal Congressmen to pass protective legislation for blacks. Republicans continually gave in to the demands of the Southern Democrats, and President Harding (1921-1924) did nothing to interfere, nor did his successors, until the late 1930s.

Through the 1930s, legislative dominance by Southern Democrats was buoyed by strong party allegiance in the south and a weak Northern Democratic party. Legislators were more concerned with passing relief bills for an economically depressed constituency than with helping blacks regain suffrage in the South. Black leaders referred to the New Deal as the "Raw Deal," as blacks' concerns were largely ignored. Roosevelt needed the votes of Southern Democrats to pass relief legislation, and he feared losing Congressional support by introducing any provisions for civil rights.

By Roosevelt's second term (1937-1940), however, the Democratic party had become more liberal, less deferential to Southerners, and more interested in urban issues. Angered by what they viewed as a betrayal, Southern Democrats began to aggressively block legislation introduced by Northern, liberal Democrats, leading filibusters against anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills. In 1935, an anti-lynching bill was met with a six-day, gentlemanly discussion before it died, with neither party wanting to offend the other. An anti-lynching bill introduced in 1938, however, led to a seven-week discussion.

Southerners continued to use racism as a tool for re-election, scaring their constituents by claiming that "white womanhood" was endangered by the loss of states' rights to control the blacks of the South. Former Mississippi governor and virulent white supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo first joined the Senate in 1935, and went so far as to introduce an amendment to a relief bill that would provide funds for the deportation of all blacks to Liberia. After Bilbo's third re-election in 1946, black organizations pressured the Senate to investigate his dealings with white supremacist groups. Only Bilbo's death in the late summer of 1947 spared the Congress from dealing with the matter, but marked the beginning of the postwar struggle for the passage of civil rights legislation. It was virtually impossible for civil rights legislation to get past the Senate in the 1940s and much of the 1950s, as the Southern Senators frequently launched filibusters that killed any legislation challenging the Southern status quo.

Not all Southern Congressmen were silent on the issue of civil rights and federal relief programs. Senator Claude Pepper (D - FL) was notable for challenging his Southern colleagues, and voted with Northern New Dealers more than any other Southern Senator. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was introduced and strongly supported by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), in spite of a filibuster led by Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC, who switched to R-SC in 1964), during which Thurmond spoke for a Senate record of 24 hours 18 minutes. Senator Johnson (and President Eisenhower) was more concerned with garnering the support of his colleagues than with affecting true change in the lives of black Americans in the south, so the Civil Rights Act was intentionally watered down so as not to alienate and anger Southern Democrats. In its final form, the bill simply created a Commission on Civil Rights, but did not affect Jim Crow. It was, however, the first civil rights legislation to become law since the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, was much more powerful in scope. It barred discrimination on the basis of race in areas of public accommodation, schools, libraries, museums, and hospitals. It prohibited businesses and unions from discriminatory actions, but did not protect the right to vote. As President, Lyndon B. Johnson was more committed to getting the Act through Congress, and wanted it passed in its original form, unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1957. It took approximately 6 months to get the bill through Congress and signed into law, thanks to the persistence of President Johnson, Senator Hubert Humphrey (D - MN), and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a powerful lobbying organization representing diverse member groups. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first to deal a decisive blow against Jim Crow. The Act demonstrated that the executive and legislative branches of the federal government were committed to working together to support constitutional rights for black Americans, for the first time since the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

The final and decisive law that effectively ended the legal practice of Jim Crow was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act declared it illegal to use literacy or character tests as a requirement for voter registration and in counties and states where less than half the population had voted in 1964. Jim Crow had lost the support of the federal government in its all aspects of segregation and discrimination. The passage of laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were influenced by civil rights activists' persistent challenge of Jim Crow by non-violent methods such as sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. Civil rights supporters were empowered by the passage of these laws, and continued to challenge the violent resistance of some white Southerners. Though Jim Crow had been defeated, blacks faced its legacy and continued to seek new ways to address the inequality and discrimination they faced in its wake.


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