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Why Jim Crow Had to Go

Winning, Then Losing, Then Winning the Right to Vote

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The Jim Crow Laws

An article on Jim Crow

Mississippi Writers Page: James Meredith



Equality's Foe - Jim Crow

Colonel Reb is the mascot at Ole Miss.
Colonel Reb is the mascot at Ole Miss.

Imagine a world where the dominant and minority races have separate restaurants, hotels, train cars, waiting rooms, bathrooms, swimming pools, drinking fountains, prisons and churches. Where people of different backgrounds must be born in separate hospitals, educated in separate schools and buried in separate cemeteries. Where anyone caught printing, publishing or circulating material promoting social equality is fined up to $500 and imprisoned for as long as six months.

Sounds terrible, doesn't it? Now guess which ethnic group had to follow these rules for nearly 100 years. Jews in Nazi Germany? The Roma (a.k.a. gypsies) of Eastern Europe? Kurds in Iraq?

How about blacks in America?

Carlos Palmer studies law at Ole Miss
Carlos Palmer studies law at Ole Miss

It's true. Between 1877 and 1960, African Americans had to obey a set of rules called "Jim Crow" laws that basically treated them like third-class citizens. Thanks to impossible literacy tests (which included questions such as 'Name all the Supreme Court Justices in the United States' history') and hefty poll taxes imposed upon them, few African Americans were allowed to vote. They faced gross discrimination in the workforce and were denied decent housing options. Not only were they forbidden to marry a European American, they couldn't even meet them for dinner at a café. In fact, blacks couldn't even swear upon the same Bible as whites in a courtroom!

How did this happen in a country whose constitution declares that all men are created equal?

Neda and I wondered the same thing. So we set out for the Deep South in search of an answer. What we found both saddened and inspired us.

Neda struts down the Walk of Champions at Ole Miss
Neda struts down the Walk of Champions at Ole Miss

First things first: What exactly does "Jim Crow" mean? Well, in the 1800s, a popular form of entertainment was for a white man to put on a suit, paint his face black, sing a bunch of racist songs and dance around like a buffoon. These performances were called "minstrel shows," and for some reason, people enjoyed them. One song that particularly got the crowd going was "Jim Crow." It eventually became a nickname for the many ways in which whites humiliated blacks.

But how did Jim Crow come about? After all, African Americans were given the same legal protection as whites in the 1875 Civil Rights Act as well as the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. What went wrong?


My little romp through the Deep South has been a galactic sugar rush!

Historians have narrowed it down to several factors, the most significant being the rise of white supremacy. In essence, millions of whites across the nation started believing they were "the chosen ones," and that God condoned racial segregation. A slew of phony scientists - craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and social Darwinists - supported the ridiculous notion that whites were genetically superior to blacks. In fact, this became the accepted explanation as to why whites prospered and blacks sank deeper into poverty. The media - particularly in the South -- added fuel to the flame by over-exaggerating the number and nature of crimes committed by blacks. Enrollment in hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan skyrocketed, and blacks became the target of lynchings and other acts of violence.

It wasn't until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that the impact of Jim Crow finally started dwindling. That, of course, is another story, but Neda and I were curious about its legacy. Martin Luther King once dreamt of the day when, "on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Has that day yet dawned on our horizon? Or are we still living in a segregated society?

To find out, we ventured to Oxford, Mississippi - home of the University of Mississippi, otherwise known as Ole Miss. For decades, this university held a reputation as a finishing school for white upper class elites. Then an African American named James Meredith applied in 1962. The university was pleased with their new recruit until they discovered he was black. They withdrew their invitation, but he came anyway. The riots that ensued left two dead and 350 injured, but Meredith got his degree and paved the way for tens of thousands of other blacks.

Neda greets Ole Miss professor Ted Ownby
Neda greets Ole Miss professor Ted Ownby

Today, approximately 12 percent of Ole Miss' student population is African American. But the days of racial tension are hardly a memory. Just a year ago, a residence hall director who was white started dating a fellow student who happened to be black. His residents were quick to voice an opinion on the matter. First, they defaced the Black History Month display that he set up in the dorm. Then they scrawled racial slurs on his door and car. Finally, they threw asphalt though his window - twice. And this pales in comparison to the sort of things that went on in the '80s. One year, a black fraternity decided to move into a house on campus. It was promptly set on fire and burned to the ground. The arsonist remains a mystery.

So it goes without saying that Neda and I felt a bit uneasy when we arrived at Ole Miss. This is, after all, a school whose very nickname rings of the days of slavery, whose buildings look like antebellum plantations, whose mascot is "Colonel Reb" and whose song is "Old Dixie."


Yet, we discovered that change has even come to the campus of Ole Miss - however slowly. For instance, fans have more or less stopped waving the Confederate flag at football games. The University first banned the flags from its bookstores in the early '80s when a black cheerleader refused to wave it. Then, a few years ago, the football coach took it a level further when he realized blacks were hesitant to join the team because they didn't want to play under a Confederate flag. Since Americans have a constitutional right to wave a flag, the coach banned the use of sticks instead. It's not so easy to fly a flag without a stick, so its use has tapered considerably.

This has made a big difference to Ole Miss' African American population. Carlos Palmer, a second year law student, remembers visiting the university in high school and being intimidated by all the rebel flags hanging on the fraternity houses. "I said to myself 'I'll never go there!'" he laughed.

But he agreed that there have been some changes on the campus in the past few years. "There used to just be a sea of Confederate flags at football games; now there's only a few. And I've also seen a bit more integration. Of course, you have to remember that a lot of the students here are the kids of the same people who tried to keep James Meredith out in the first place. Some people are genuine and some are not, but being a minority, I have to take it as it is."

Another step the university has taken in recent years is the creation of student groups like SEED -- Students Envisioning Equality through Diversity -- that address topics of racial tolerance through lectures, workshops and diversity training.

"We have made good strides since the night we were integrated, but there is still a level of unease," said Susan Glisson, the interim director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss. "I'm optimistic though. Here in the South, you can't consider the white without the black or the black without the white."


As Neda and I drove away from Ole Miss, something Carlos said resonated in my mind. Prior to Ole Miss, he had gone to an all-black college in Mississippi. There, he had been part of a very accepting community that treated him with respect. But he said that he decided to attend law school at Ole Miss in order "to be reintegrated to the Real World."

If Ole Miss is the real world, I'm glad it's starting to change.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Assassination, ballot box stuffing, and eating in the bathroom: it's American politicking!
Teddy - Impeach the President! Andrew Johnson, that is
Nick - You're crazy! You can't do that!!!
Making A Difference - Getting mad about hate groups
Neda - This is America. We all have the right to vote…or do we?