Jim Crow laws, named for an antebellum minstrel show character, were late-19th-century statutes passed by the legislatures of the Southern states that created a racial caste system in the American South. Although slavery had been abolished, many whites at this time believed that nonwhites were inherently inferior and to support this belief sought rationalizations through religion and science. The U.S. Supreme Court was inclined to agree with the white-supremacist judgment and in 1883 began to strike down the foundations of the post-Civil War Reconstruction, declaring the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. In 1896 it legitimized the principle of "separate but equal" in its ruling Plessy v. Ferguson.

The high court rulings led to a profusion of Jim Crow laws. By 1914 every Southern state had passed laws that created two separate societies — one black, the other white. This artificial structure was maintained by denying the franchise to blacks through the use of devices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests. It was further strengthened by the creation of separate facilities in every part of society, including schools, restaurants, streetcars, health-care institutions, and cemeteries.

The first major blow against the Jim Crow system of racial segregation was struck in 1954 by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which declared segregation in the public schools unconstitutional. In the following decade the system slowly crumbled under the onslaught of the civil rights movement. The legal structure of segregation was finally ended by the civil rights legislation of 1964–68.

Ronald L. Lewis

The Age of Jim CrowTrouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow Boston Confronts Jim Crow, 1890–1920 The Strange Career of Jim Crow Bibliography: (1957; 3d rev. ed., 1974). (1996); Woodward, C. Vann, (1997); Shaw, S. J., (1990); Schneider, M. R., (1998); McMillen, N. R., (1990); Litwack, Leon F., (1992); Kennedy, S., (1982); Finkelman, P., ed., Cell, John W., The Highest Stage of White Supremacy Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era