As civil rights struggles became more and more prevalent in the United States during the last part of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, state and local laws known as Jim Crow laws defined what many U.S. citizens felt to be "separate but equal" treatment for African Americans. The laws were prevalent in the south but were not exclusive to that area. These laws provided the backbone for racial segregation and were considered, later in the twentieth century, to be a violation of civil rights and therefore unconstitutional.
The term Jim Crow originated, supposedly, from a white actor who portrayed a black man with that name, but it also may have originated from a song and dance caricature that poked fun at African Americans in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Jim Crow laws first appeared shortly after the Civil War when the federal government began to return power to the southern states. Under federal law, freed slaves were guaranteed civil rights, but as white Democrats in the south began to regain control of state governments – often through aggressive means, including voter intimidation and outright violence — Jim Crow laws began segregating African Americans from the rest of the white population.
These laws allowed for segregation in businesses, neighborhoods, schools, and other facets of daily life. African Americans were forced to use separate sections of buses and trains, sit in separate sections of restaurants, and attend separate schools than white Americans. This type of segregation led to fierce civil rights struggles, especially in regards to laws that segregated schools. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on a landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregation in schools was inherently unequal, thereby abolishing segregation in public schools. The practice, however, continued for several more years, resulting in more racial tensions and often violence.
The demise of these laws did not come all at once. Several key events — including Rosa Parks’s refusal to move from her seat on a segregated bus, as well as several bus boycotts — built up and provided enough tension in society that the question of segregation finally had to be dealt with. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a major proponent of ending Jim Crow laws as well. After years of campaigning, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, effectively ending Jim Crow laws. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 continued on that sentiment, disallowing segregation in all elections. Unfortunately, many discriminatory practices persisted until the early to mid 1970’s in the form of violence or outright defiance, and some of the segregationist sentiment still exists today throughout parts of the United States.