Jim Crow Laws Were Wicked in Their Own Right. The Jim Crow Etiquette Was Worse.
So, who was Jim Crow anyway? The origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” has often been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of African Americans performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson’s populist policies. As a result of Rice’s fame, “Jim Crow” had become a pejorative expression meaning “African American” by 1838, and from this the laws of racial segregation became known as Jim Crow laws. So Jim Crow wasn’t a real person. You better believe the laws were real.
Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief that Blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to Whites. Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the White race. Even simple children’s games portrayed blacks as inferior people.
Most of us are familiar in some way with the Jim Crow laws. Blacks were to use different entrances, different schools, different seats on the bus. Blacks were to use different water fountains, different chairs, and so on. Failure to abide by these laws meant you could be beaten, jailed, or worse. Laws were passed which excluded Blacks from public transport and facilities, juries, jobs, and neighborhoods. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had granted Blacks the same legal protections as Whites. However, after 1877, and the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, southern and border states began restricting the liberties of Blacks. Unfortunately for Blacks, the Supreme Court helped undermine the Constitutional protections of Blacks with the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case, which legitimized Jim Crow laws and the Jim Crow way of life.
However, there was more to the Jim Crow System than just the laws. Sure, the laws were scary. They were real. They were in place. But according to research, it was the other part of the Jim Crow System – the Jim Crow Etiquette – that really scared the people. The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: Whites were superior to Blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and civilized behavior; sexual relations between Blacks and Whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; treating Blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.
Here are some examples of Jim Crow Etiquette.
- A Black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a White male because it implied being socially equal. Obviously, a Black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a White woman, because he risked being accused of rape.
- Blacks and Whites were not supposed to eat together. If they did eat together, Whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.
- Under no circumstance was a Black male to offer to light the cigarette of a White female — that gesture implied intimacy.
- Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended Whites.
- Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that Blacks were introduced to Whites, never Whites to Blacks. For example: “Mr. Peters (the White person), this is Charlie (the Black person), that I spoke to you about.”
- Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to Blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma’am. Instead, Blacks were called by their first names. Blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to Whites, and were not allowed to call them by their first names.
- If a Black person rode in a car driven by a White person, the Black person sat in the back seat, or the back of a truck.
- White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections.
Moreover, Blacks were to remember the following rules when conversing with Whites:
- Never assert or even intimate that a White person is lying.
- Never impute dishonorable intentions to a White person.
- Never suggest that a White person is from an inferior class.
- Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.
- Never curse a White person.
- Never laugh derisively at a White person.
- Never comment upon the appearance of a White female.
There were other interesting tactics used as well. For instance, poor blacks were charged a fee if they wanted to vote. Or only Democrats could vote, and only Whites could be Democrats. Another tactic used was an eligibility test where Blacks were asked to name every Senator ever to serve the country. Though White men often had relations with Black women, under Jim Crow any and all sexual interactions between Black men and White women was illegal, illicit, socially repugnant, and within the Jim Crow definition of rape.
Violate the Jim Crow law, and you go to Jail. Violate the Jim Crow Etiquette, and you get worse than jail. You get killed. Violence was instrumental for Jim Crow. It was a method of social control. The most extreme forms of Jim Crow violence were lynchings.
Lynchings were public, often sadistic, murders carried out by mobs. Between 1882, when the first reliable data were collected, and 1968, when lynchings had become rare, there were 4,730 known lynchings, including 3,440 Black men and women. Most of the victims of Lynch-Law were hanged or shot, but some were burned at the stake, castrated, beaten with clubs, or dismembered. In the mid-1800s, Whites constituted the majority of victims (and perpetrators); however, by the period of Radical Reconstruction, Blacks became the most frequent lynching victims. This is an early indication that lynching was used as an intimidation tool to keep Blacks, in this case the newly-freedmen, “in their places.” The great majority of lynchings occurred in southern and border states, where the resentment against Blacks ran deepest. According to the social economist Gunnar Myrdal: “The southern states account for nine-tenths of the lynchings. More than two thirds of the remaining one-tenth occurred in the six states which immediately border the South.”
Of course, these laws no longer exist now. But traveling in certain parts of the south, one can easily see that some of the etiquette still lingers in the air. Cautions are still taken, and fear still exists. Imagine the life of a traveling bluesman – a rambler, a drifter, a man without the support of a community, traveling through the south in the times of Jim Crow. It brings new existence to fear, and brings new meaning to Robert Johnson’s singing of “Cross Road Blues.”
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down.
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin’ sun goin’ down.
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down.
Portions of this article were taken from Ferris State University.