Jim Crow law

Save This Word!

noun U.S. History.
any state law discriminating against Black persons.
There are grammar debates that never die; and the ones highlighted in the questions in this quiz are sure to rile everyone up once again. Do you know how to answer the questions that cause some of the greatest grammar debates?
Question 1 of 7
Which sentence is correct?
Compare Black Code.

Origin of Jim Crow law

An Americanism dating back to 1890–95
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What are Jim Crow laws?

Jim Crow laws refer to the legalized segregation of the Black population of the United States in schools, restaurants, public transportation, voting rights, among many other institutions or facilities, after the Civil War up until the 1960s.

Content warning: this article includes content dealing with slavery and racism.

How is term pronounced?

[ jim kroh lawz ]

History and consequence of Jim Crow laws

The term Jim Crow predates the Civil War. Jim Crow was the name of a fictional character—an unintelligent, foolish, racist caricature of a Black slave—played in blackface makeup by white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice in minstrel shows in the early 1830s. Rice claimed to have gotten the name from a real-life occurrence where he heard an older black man singing a song called “Jump Jim Crow,” which Rice then appropriated for his minstrel show. In the 1800s, the popularity of these shows across the country turned the name Jim Crow into an ethnic slur against black people.

Though the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally abolished the practice of slavery in the United States in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, the struggles of the Black population by no means ended there. Black communities faced many obstacles and widespread prejudice during the Reconstruction period. In 1890, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law requiring that Black and white citizens use separate cars when traveling on a train, a decision which was then cemented by the 1896 Supreme Court under the notorious “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. This opened the doors to a wave of restrictive laws all across the southern U.S. to curb the rights of black people, and by 1899, one such law in North Carolina had been dubbed “the Jim Crow law” and “the color line.” Other Jim Crow laws involved segregating schools by skin color (with Black schools getting much less funding, therefore suffering in quality and condition), the segregation of hospitals, a curfew for black citizens, requirements for Black people and white people to use separate public bathrooms, water fountains, and entrances, among numerous other examples. New Jim Crow laws continued being passed into the mid-20th century.

After decades of protests, legal battles, and the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow laws were officially ended when widespread Black protests and political pressure convinced the government to pass the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which together outlawed states from discriminating against any individual on the basis of race.

The legacy of Jim Crow laws, however, continues to this day, as Black populations in the United States have had to continue fighting for voting rights, struggling against institutional racism in legal and economic systems, and battling the mass incarceration of black males, which has been called the New Jim Crow.

Discussions of laws that are seen as oppressive toward minorities are often compared to (or referred to as) Jim Crow (laws), and many have argued that Jim Crow never truly ended, given the U.S.’s ongoing struggles with racism.

Examples of Jim Crow laws

“Dramatic racial progress in America is inevitably followed by a white backlash, or ‘whitelash.’ Reconstruction in the 19th century was followed by a century of Jim Crow.”
—John Blake, “This is what ‘whitelash’ looks like,” CNN, November 20, 2016

“Somehow, looking at Johnson’s post, the term ‘mass incarceration’ seems not to capture exactly what this country is doing to its African American population. Does this equal a ‘new Jim Crow?’”
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Mapping the New Jim Crow,” The Atlantic, October 17, 2014


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.