The origin of the segregation laws in the South

The origin of the segregation in the south has been the issue at the center of many studies undertaken by historians. It has been widely argued that segregation would not have existed if slavery had not abolished. With the coming of industrialization age, the dependency of entrepreneurs on human labor reduced significantly. This also coincided with the agitation for slavery to be abolished in the United States. The freedmen began to establish themselves economically and politically by taking advantage of opportunities available to them. This placed them in direct conflict with the former slave owners who viewed them as intruders encroaching their political and economic opportunities. The whites therefore used segregation to deprive the blacks of equal opportunities referring to them as a dangerous and inferior race.

The segregation laws in the south trace their origins to the reconstruction era which began in 1863 and lasted up to 1877 when federal troops were withdrawn from the last the South. President Lincoln introduced reconstruction with the aim of ending the civil war and thus bringing to an end the confederation formed by southern states after secession. In addition, radical Republicans from the north wanted slavery to be permanently abolished and the constitution amended so as to guarantee the freedmen equal rights. This was not a simple task as the white conservative democrats in the south were not willing to cede the control of the confederation to the federal government and enact laws that would grant the freedmen the right to vote. The confederation was defeated by the federal troops in 1865 marking the end of the civil war.

As a result, new state governments, backed by the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, assumed power in the south. The governments constituted a coalition of Republicans made up of: freedmen, immigrants who had settled in the south after the end of the civil war and native white southerners. The southern conservative democrats resented the new governments as they felt they did not represent their rights. They formed paramilitary and vigilante groups such as the White League, the Red Shirts and the Ku Klux Klan which they used to unleash terror on southerners who supported the new state Republican governments.

Between 1873 and 1877, the conservative white democrats, who christened themselves Redeemers, managed to regain control over the entire south during the state elections. The elections were characterized by violence and gross violations of state electoral laws with the white southern democrats terrorizing their opponents using the paramilitary groups as well as attacking black voters so that they could not vote. In addition, the southerners entered into an agreement with the incumbent administration promising their support in the presidential election in return for the withdrawal of federal troops in the south. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes withdrew federal troops from the south. This led to the collapse of the Republican states in the south marking the end of the reconstruction era, ushering the segregation era which lasted for nearly a century.

With the end of the reconstruction era and the federal government out of their way, the white southerners were now free to enact laws which would safeguard their own interests. In 1876, the southern states began to amend their constitutions and enact laws which restricted the civil liberties and civil rights of African Americans. These laws were commonly referred to as the Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was a short form of Jump Jim Crow, a term used by the whites to refer to the African American way of singing and dancing. The Jim Crow laws legally established segregation in all public utilities with separate but equal rights status accorded to all African Americans and other non-white racial groups. The segregation laws were to be applied in public transportation, public places for example public parks and other public recreational facilities in addition to public schools.

In 1870, during reconstruction, the federal government legally accorded freedmen equal rights. This gave them the right to participate in state elections where they could vote for their preferred candidate. In addition, they were also allowed to run for political office. Even with the end of the reconstruction era, black candidates in the south were still allowed to seek elective posts. However, the southern states amended their constitutions so that it would difficult for blacks and poor whites to be registered as voters.  In order to register as voters, African Americans were required to pay poll tax in addition to being literate. The southern states enacted these suppressive laws in outright disregard of the fourteenth and the fifteenth amendments which provided legal protections against such atrocities.

The first ballot tax was enacted by the state of Georgia with the other southern states following suit in subsequent years. Mississippi enacted the understanding clause which restricted voting to only literate members of the state. In addition, the would be voters had be conversant with the state’s constitution. The ballot papers were also designed in such a way that it was difficult to vote thus making many black voters shy away from voting. The voter registration process was also manipulated with the registration process being assigned a single day in most states. Many potential voters were as a result unable to register as the voter registration day passed unannounced. The election officials resulted to broad day light theft by deceiving the semi illiterate to mark against the candidates they did not wish to vote for.  This marginalized many black voters as seventy percent of the black population was illiterate at the time leading to low turnouts during polls in the southern states. As a result, many African American voters were fraudulently disenfranchised. This was a direct violation of their right to participate in the state’s political processes as guaranteed by the reconstruction of the constitution. It would now be impossible for them to influence state legislatures which were the only forum they could use to advance their interests.

The Supreme Court ruling in two civil proceedings at the height of segregation further escalated the racial tensions between the whites and the blacks. In the first case the Supreme Court dismissed the Civil Rights Act passed by the U.S. congress in 1875 as a meaningless piece of legislation. In the second case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court ruled against the plaintiff despite it being evident to all and sundry that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his racial background.

In a bold attempt to put an end to the blatant segregation perpetrated by the Jim Crow, two Republican law makers, Senator Charles Sumner and Congressman Benjamin Butler, brought the Civil Rights Act before the U.S. congress in 1875. The Act guaranteed every American citizen the right to equal treatment in public utilities irrespective of their race, color and previous state of servitude.[5] However the withdrawal of federal troops dealt a great blow to the enforcement of the Act. Furthermore, the Supreme Court in 1883 ruled that the act interfered with the civil liberties of individual citizens as guaranteed by the constitution. Congress had therefore intervened in a matter that was beyond its jurisdiction.

The ruling of the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case was the one that led to the express recognition of segregation laws in state courts. In 1890, the State of Louisiana passed a law that barred blacks from riding in the same railroad cars as whites. The blacks were enraged by the state’s outright disregard of their individual interests and thus they decided to challenge the law in court. Fair skinned Homer Plessy, who was seven-eight Caucasian, was selected to determine the constitutionality of the law. He boarded a train and alerted the conductor of his racial background before taking a sit in a car set aside for whites. He was ordered to leave the car and relocate to a colored only car. He protested leading to his arrest. His case was however dismissed by the State Court of Louisiana prompting him to file a petition with the Supreme Court with the backing of the Citizens Committee of New Orleans. In a move uncharacteristic of its stature, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling made by the state court stating that the fact that state laws accorded the separate but equal status to non white races should not be misinterpreted to mean that the non white races were inferior or second class citizens. This ruling legalized the racial segregation laws marking the beginning of half a century of racial discrimination.







Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.


Ayers, Edward L. Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002.


Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.


Dray Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. ( New York: Random House), 2002.

Ayers Edward L. Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906. ( New York: Oxford University Press), 1995

Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

 Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

 Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

 Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002

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