Jim Crow enforced legal separation in public facilities such as restaurants, bus stations, restrooms, schools and public buildings. Even public drinking fountains had signs indicating fountains for “whites only.” So it was not only a legal system but a way of life, Moore said.
“That’s why you have the civil rights movement to break down those laws. That’s why you have things like Brown vs. Board of Education (the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down school segregation laws). Because you realize that you can’t have separate institutions ... when you are looking at a group of people and thinking they are inferior.”
The Atlanta museum includes a display to explain Jim Crow laws at the entrance of its civil rights gallery titled “Rolls Down Like Water.”
“We want (visitors) to understand the grounding of why the civil rights movement was needed and why it was important,” Moore said. “And the first thing you need to know is, how did segregation come about (and) what is Jim Crow?”
Were there Jim Crow or segregation laws restricting voting?
Yes and no, she said. After the Civil War ended, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed Black citizens the right to vote, but some state governments imposed additional requirements to restrict participation in voting, such as the payment of poll taxes or requiring voters to show proof they could read and write. In some cases, they were asked civics questions, such as the names of local elected officials.
The additional limits effectively prevented nearly all Black Southerners from voting.
“It wasn’t that there was a specific law that said you couldn’t vote. You have the right to vote,” Moore said. “Who’s preventing you from voting? You don’t know how to read, you don’t have the money to do this, or you don’t know this information.”
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Jim Crow in Georgia
Georgia has a long history of disenfranchising Black residents. The state’s first constitution in 1777 prohibited Black people from voting.
That ban continued until after the Civil War, when federal troops in the South enforced the new 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed citizens the right to vote, regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
For a brief period, substantial numbers of Black Southerners registered, voted and won political office. By the early 1870s, Black residents accounted for nearly 40% of registered voters in Georgia, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
But Northern efforts to protect the rights of Black Southerners waned. Federal troops withdrew in 1877, and concerted efforts by Southern states to subvert civil rights laws “resulted in a backlash limiting access to voting for African-American citizens,” according to the commission.
Thus began the era of Jim Crow, which lasted until the 1960s.
Named for a Black minstrel show character, Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation in schools and other facilities and prevented Black people from voting.
Georgia used a variety of methods to disenfranchise Black residents. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the state implemented poll taxes (1877), whites-only primary elections (1900) and literacy tests (1908) to limit voting.
Georgia also used onerous residency requirements, cumbersome registration procedures, voter challenges and purges, and discriminatory redistricting practices to disenfranchise Black residents, according to research by Adrienne Jones, a political scientist at Morehouse College.
The laws were enforced by the threat of violence. Between 1882 and 1930, at least 458 people were lynched in Georgia, second only to Mississippi’s 538 people.
Court decisions eventually chipped away at Jim Crow. A federal court invalidated Georgia’s white primary in 1946. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in 1954.
But Southern states resisted. In 1957, for example, Georgia made its literacy test even harder and doubled the number of correct answers needed to pass.
Ultimately, Jim Crow laws persisted until the mid-1960s when Congress approved the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Even then, Georgia continued to run afoul of the law. Under a provision of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department objected to 177 election changes in Georgia through 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the provision that required federal approval of such changes.
The rationale for poll taxes and other voting restrictions in Mississippi’s 1890 constitution — a model for other Southern states, including Georgia — was to restore election integrity, said Carol Anderson, chair of African American studies at Emory University. But Mississippi’s governor admitted the real reason was to eliminate Black people from politics, she said.
Edited by Brian O’Shea, with reporting by David Wickert, Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne.