Was the introduction of Jim Crow Laws by state governments the most important reason for the denial of civil and political equality for black Americans?

 After Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, a period of Reconstruction began in America from 1865, which attempted to integrate black Americans into society. After Lincoln’s assassination, the Reconstruction took a different turn, which gave way to the evolution of Black Codes and eventually Jim Crow Laws primarily within the Deep South. Such laws denied black people civil and political equality, regarding voting rights and miscegenation. Apart from the introduction of Jim Crow laws by state governments, violence, the decisions of the Supreme Court and property restrictions denied blacks civil and political equality. It was the introduction of Jim Crow Laws by state governments that was the most important reason for the denial of civil and political equality for black Americans. 

   The Jim Crow Laws that were implemented across America concerning miscegenation denied civil equality for black Americans, as white men and women were condemned for entering into sexual relationships with blacks. Laws concerning miscegenation were implemented across 27 states. This showed that these laws were put into practice across the whole of America, showing how racism was widespread, and not just concentrated within the Deep South. In Mississippi in 1890, after the rewriting of their current constitution, the marriage between a white and black was declared “null and void.” Such laws were reinforced in Utah as late as 1943, denying blacks civil equality as it was implied that blacks were inferior to whites, and therefore could not enter into a relationship with them.

   Jim Crow Laws greatly affected political equality for black Americans as they interfered with the black populations’ ability to vote. After the Reconstruction, black voters outnumbered white voters in five of the former Confederate States. The Democrat heavy southern state governments, in response to this, sought to find out ways that they could remove the political rights of black Americans. After the rewriting of the Mississippi Constitution in 1890, the state legislature ensured that black Americans would not be allowed to vote. This contradicted the 15th Amendment, which had given all American citizens the right to vote, regardless of race. Louisiana’s ‘Grandfather Clause’ played a significant role in affecting the political equality of blacks. 

   Louisiana’s ‘Grandfather Clause’ was introduced on the 8th of February 1898, and successfully denied political equality for blacks. The aim of the Clause, as laid down by the president of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention was to remove illiterate voters. Such a term was used to hide their discriminatory views against black people. Under the convention, one could only vote if they owned land and could pass a literacy test. In order to deny blacks the right to vote, the ‘Grandfather Clause’ was added, stating that if somebody’s grandfather could vote, they could also. However, they must have been eligible to do so from 1867, which successfully excluded blacks, as they had not been given the vote until 1870. Such segregation demonstrates the lengths that white people went to exclude blacks, and also shows how black people were denied the right to vote.

   The poll tax also introduced by state governments also denied blacks political equality, as, on the surface, they were excluded from voting on financial grounds. This tax also led to a drop in white voting, as they too could not afford to pay the two dollar poll tax. Georgia and Arkansas installed poll taxes, which caused a 65 percent drop in black voting. In Arkansas in 1890, 71 percent of blacks voted in the election, which dropped to 9 percent after the poll tax was instated. The poll tax was used as a cover for racial discrimination, as state governments intended the new laws to be financially, and not racially motivated. Such laws were introduced in several northern and western states, such as Wisconsin, California and Connecticut. This stopped many blacks from voting, as they simply could not afford to do so. This allowed state governments to racially discriminate against black people while claiming that the new laws were based on purely financial grounds. The steps taken to restrict the voting rights of black Americans prove that the introduction of Jim Crow Laws by state governments were the most important reason for the denial of civil and political equality for black Americans.

   The evolution of white supremacy and violence towards black Americans is another way in which blacks were denied civil and political equality, beginning with the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was set up in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, and consisted of a group of former Confederate soldiers, who sought to protect chivalry, mercy and patriotism. They targeted black teachers and ministers as they wished to halt black education. They were also responsible for lynching many black men, averaging to 187 in the 1890’s. Lynching’s were public and family events, and one shocking example is the lynching of Henry Smith, who was tortured for fifty minutes before he was lynched and set alight. 10,000 people gathered to watch the event in Texas in 1893, which was reported in the New York Times. The New York Sun reported, “Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd.” This created a state of fear within the south, as blacks were too scared to ask and fight for their political and civil rights, making it another significant way in which these rights were denied. Ida Wells Barnett, a journalist who eventually migrated to the north, noted that blacks would most commonly be lynched if they were disrespectful to a white, were accused of raping a white woman or if he were too prosperous. This use of fear and scaremongering was also used to stop blacks from voting, which led to denial of their political and civil equality. Although this violence impacted greatly on the lives of blacks it is still the Jim Crow laws that had the most significant affect in denying their civil and political equality, as this was done formally through state governments with the aim of discriminating against black people.

   The decisions of the Supreme Court can also be seen to deny civil and political equality to black people, especially when looking at the repercussions of the Plessy v Ferguson case. The case challenged the Louisiana law of 1890, which demanded segregation on railroads. Homer Plessy was one eighth black, and deliberately broke the segregation rules on street cars. His lawyer tried to prove that, by pointing out that Plessy was mixed race, segregating facilities by colour was absurd. However, the Supreme Court ignored this argument, stating that Plessy was a known black, and that he should know his place. The Court then proceeded to argue that segregation posed no problems as long as the facilities were equal. The case gave rise to the phrase ‘separate but equal,’ and the court argued that, in having separate facilities, the 14th Amendment, which had promoted “equal protection under the law,” was not ignored or contravened. The case appeared to legalise segregation, denying blacks civil equality, as they were still seen as inferior to white people. Although this decision was legally endorsed, it does not carry the same weight as the Jim Crow laws, as they aimed to discriminate and restrict the political and civil equality of blacks.

   In the North, a different type of racism denied blacks civil equality, through the use of property restrictions. As white people did not want to live near black people, they were not offered certain properties. This forced black people to gather in concentrated areas, resulting in ghettos.  Areas were identified that would not be sold or rented to black people, which resulted in de facto segregation. As the population of black people were concentrated into these small areas, they were subject to worse conditions, poorer standards of education which led to higher crime rates. Again, this segregation made black people feel like inferior citizens, and led to a poorer quality of life, as their civil equality had been denied to them.

   It is the Jim Crow laws that were passed by state governments that were the most important reason for the denial of civil and political equality for black Americans. These laws discriminated against blacks and went out of their way to exclude them from society, as can be seen with laws against miscegenation and blacks voting. The overall denial of their civil and political equality does come from other factors discussed in the essay, which were legally endorsed by the Supreme Court case of Plessy v Ferguson. However, it is the Jim Crow laws that act as the most important reason as to why blacks were denied civil and political equality.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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