The animosity left behind by the Civil War between southern whites and African Americans led to a number of legal battles. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, while effective in theory, only served to create a larger divide between races. In 1896, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson paved the way for further legal segregation and the deluge of state and local laws that made clear the fact that African Americans, while technically free citizens, were second class human beings.
Jim Crow laws were born and maintained a level of discrimination that was severely damaging to the African American community and filled a reprehensible chapter in American history. Prior to 1896, African Americans were given social equality in all public places. Plessy v. Ferguson determined that hotels and railroads were privately owned, and therefore not public places. The Louisiana court that heard the case established that privately owned locations and services were, in fact, able to segregate the races so long as they provided an equal substitution for African Americans and other citizens of color.
In one appeal, Supreme Court Justice William B. Brown set the precedence for the onslaught of the Jim Crow laws that followed in copious amounts and removed a significant freedom from freed slaves. No longer could they enter a hotel through the front door or sit in a railroad car with their white counterparts. Jim Crow laws encompassed an unending array of daily indignities for African Americans. In Alabama, as well as many other states, African Americans were segregated on buses, on railroads, in restaurants, and even in pool and billiard rooms.
African Americans were not permitted to marry or cohabitate with white people under any circumstances. In Florida, cohabitation could be punished by imprisonment and fines of up to $500, which was significant at that time. The laws involved a myriad of things from public transportation, to education, to theaters, to public restrooms. Violations and even minor rebuffing of these abhorrent laws by African Americans was unacceptable to whites and led to public beatings and even hangings, among other punishments.
Personal accounts of experiences with Jim Crow laws are readily available and easy to find, but not quite as easy to imagine for those who were not subjected to such atrocities. In the early 1980s the Center for Documentary Studies and several historians launched a project called “Behind the Veil; Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South” to preserve an accurate account of the experience of segregation. Charles Gratton, who simply paints a picture of being “raised in it segregation ” tells of his mother giving him the instructions, “You pass any white people on your way, you get off the sidewalk. Give them the sidewalk…Don’t challenge white people…” (PBS, 2002). This was a way of life for children born during segregation and while the undertone was negative, they knew no other way. While there were those who simply resigned themselves to a life of being a second-class citizen, some in the African American community raised their voices against segregation. Ida B.
Wells struggled to have a voice throughout her entire life. Born to freed slaves in 1862, Ida was fortunate enough to pursue an education that led to a successful career. Her parents died when she was only 14 years old and she took a teach job to support her siblings. She began to protest the injustices of segregation at the tender age of 22 when the conductor on a train for which she had purchased a first-class ticket attempted to move her to the Jim Crow section of the train. She bit his hand and was then forcefully removed from the train.
That experience compelled her into journalism and she spent the rest of her life publicly denouncing segregation and discrimination. Booker T. Washington, was in many ways a “company man” in his dealing with the public education and political systems. His public image was one of compliance and subordination, while his private persona was passionate about equal rights for black Americans. He worked within the system to foster the best results for his contemporaries and the average African American citizen.
He was both supported and disliked for his tactics. Born a slave in the Virginia countryside, he struggled and toiled to educate himself and make something of his life. His career began in education and was enormously successful and well thought of by blacks and whites alike in terms of this role. He played a significant role in the funding of black schools and was sought for consultation by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. While a group of intellectuals in the black community, including Atlanta University scholar, W.
E. B. Du Bois protested his philosophy of taking a subordinate role as a means to an end, middle- and working-class African Americans supported him whole-heartedly. W. E. B. Du Bois actively objected to the actions and opinions of Booker T. Washington. Du Bois also placed a premium on education and was the first African American to earn a Ph. D. in history from Harvard University. His position with Atlanta University afforded him the reputation as one of the most distinguished educators of his time.
In 1905, Du Bois and a number of other black intellectuals founded the Niagara Movement, a direct repudiation of Booker T. Washington’s policies in his “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895. Du Bois coined the Movement’s mission statement, “We want full manhood suffrage and we want it now…We are men! We want to be treated as men. And we shall win. ” (The Circle Association, 1996). The Niagara Movement was a forerunner of the NAACP, established in 1910 by several core members of the dispersing Niagara Movement. W. E. B. Du Bois continued his work for Civil Rights throughout the rest of his life.
At the historic march on Washington in 1963, his death, just the prior evening, was announced to the crowd gathered at the Washington Monument. Jim Crow laws, in effect, both tore down and raised up African Americans in the United States. Forced to live as second-class citizens for so many years churned a great passion for equal treatment and the courage to stand up for it no matter the cost. People like Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois played different roles in the struggle for racial equality and set the stage for the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr.
There are still remnants of that shameful time during our country’s history, but far more powerful are the memories of Rosa Parks and her infamous bus seat and four of the most inspirational words in American history, “I have a dream…” At one time a segregated nation; the struggles, losses, failures, and triumphs have brought this country into the 21st century, to a culmination of change in the form of a political symbolism – an African American president. A nation united is the destination, the remembrance of a dishonorable American saga is the fuel for continued forward progress.