The History of Jim Crow Laws Shows Modern Comparisons Are Just Cheap Political Demagoguery

What are “Jim Crow” laws? President Biden apparently thinks they are synonymous with election integrity. In fact, when Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill in 2021 requiring voter ID and strengthening rules against bribery and electioneering at the polls, the President condemned the law as “Jim Crow on steroids.”

That was Joe Biden on hallucinogens.

The Georgia law expanded voter access. Nothing in it, explicitly or otherwise, was aimed at discriminating against one group of voters to the benefit of another group. The Secretary of State explained this in an article at The Hill. No one’s vote is “suppressed” by the new law. Claims to the contrary are deceit and partisanship at their worst, a shameful exercise in demagoguery.

All this was proven out in the elections of 2022, which saw record turnout among both whites and blacks in Georgia. Par for the course, the White House issued no apology.

The vilification of Georgia’s law—which is comparable to or better than election integrity rules in many states, including Colorado and New York—did a disgraceful disservice to the cause of understanding what real Jim Crow was all about. It trivialized a terrible time. It was like suggesting that a visit to the Six Flags theme park is just another day in a concentration camp. Before the close of Black History Month 2023, let’s get a refresher on this sin of the recent past.

In his authoritative book on the subject, American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, Jerrold M. Packard explains:

Jim Crow wasn’t a who. It was, at its core, a structure of exclusion and discrimination devised by [some] white Americans to be employed principally against black Americans—though others felt its sting as well, not least Hispanics and Asians, and even whites who opposed it. Its central purpose was to maintain a second-class social and economic status for blacks while upholding a first-class social and economic status for whites. Jim Crow discrimination against African-Americans existed in every state in the nation.

Jim Crow laws and ordinances mandated racial separation in virtually all places where the public gathered—schools, restrooms, and restaurants, even drinking fountains. When Rosa Parks refused to take a seat in the back of a Montgomery bus in 1955, she was breaking a law passed by Democrats in the Alabama legislature. Some companies like Sears resisted the segregation of their customers but racism was the law and the cops were deployed to enforce it.

Below is a sample of what Jim Crow looked like on the books. These verbatim excerpts come from the city government of Birmingham, Alabama in its published code of ordinances, 1944:

Chapter 14, Drugs and Food, Section 369, Separation of Races. It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.

Chapter 23, Gambling, Section 597, Negroes and White Persons Not To Play Together. It shall be unlawful for a negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes, or checkers. Any person, who being the owner, proprietor or keeper or superintendent, of any tavern, inn, restaurant or other public house or public place, or the clerk, servant or employee or such owner, proprietor, keeper or superintendent, knowingly permits a negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other at any game with cards, dice, dominoes or checkers, in his house or on his premises shall, on conviction, be punished as provided in section 4.

Chapter 35, Offenses-Miscellaneous, Section 859, Separation of Races.

It shall be unlawful for any person in charge or control of any room, hall, theatre, picture house, auditorium, yard, court, ballpark, public park, or other indoor or outdoor place, to which both white persons and negroes are admitted, to cause, permit or allow therein or thereon any theatrical performance, picture exhibition, speech, or educational or entertainment program of any kind whatsoever, unless such room, hall, theatre, picture house, auditorium, yard, court, ball park, or other place, has entrances, exits and seating or standing sections set aside for and assigned to the use of white persons, and other entrances, exits and seating or standing sections set aside for and assigned to the use of negroes, unless the entrances, exits and seating or standing sections set aside for and assigned to the use of white persons are distinctly separated from those set aside for and assigned to the use of negroes, by well defined physical barriers…

Chapter 40, Pool and Billiard Rooms and Bowling Alleys, Section 859: Separation of Races. It shall be unlawful for a negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards. Any person, who, being the owner, proprietor or in charge of any poolroom, pool table, billiard room or billiard table, knowingly permits a negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards on his premises shall, upon conviction, be punished as provided in section 4.

Of all people, Joe Biden should know what Jim Crow was. He is the titular head of the political party that sponsored and enacted it. One of his heroes was the late Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, who was elected unanimously as Exalted Cyclops of his local Ku Klux Klan chapter.

Democratic President Woodrow Wilson showed a film in the White House that glorified racism and the KKK and spoke afterward about how good it was. He also resegregated the entire federal government by skin color and then dealt shamefully with blacks who served in uniform in World War I.

Franklin Roosevelt nominated a Klan member to the Supreme Court. He also snubbed Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens by inviting the white athletes in the 1936 Berlin games to the White House but not Jesse. That’s the same FDR who forcibly interned 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans in the 1940s for the crime of being of Japanese ancestry.

The fact is, Jim Crow was a Democratic Party project—not only in Southern states but at one time or another, in many parts of the North as well. It is not partisan in any way to point this out. It’s called “history”—objective, verified and unassailable fact.

If you want to know what Jim Crow was really like, I can recommend three excellent books on the subject. One is Packard’s American Nightmare, referenced above. It walks the reader through its origins to the inter-war years and finally to its demise in 1965. You’ll learn how such a reprehensible system was rationalized and defended, and just who rationalized and defended it.

Riveting from start to finish, the second book is 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South by Bill Steigerwald, a veteran newspaperman of nearly 40 years. He recounts the courageous undertaking of a true, old-school, investigative journalist, Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Accompanied by John Wesley Dobbs of Atlanta and disguised as a black man, Sprigle journeyed 4,000 miles across Jim Crow states in 1948 to witness first-hand what blacks endured in their daily lives. The series of articles he subsequently wrote for the Post-Gazette were an international sensation. They blew the lid off Jim Crow and proved to be a major impetus to the nascent civil rights movement. (Take note: This was a privately-owned, capitalist, profit-seeking newspaper doing its job to get government to finally do the right thing and stop forcing segregation on the public.)

Bill Steigerwald, author of 30 Days, is a friend of mine. Over nearly four decades, he was a rare, openly-libertarian feature writer and columnist for the three major newspapers in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. As I read Bill’s book, I was haunted by what Sprigle discovered and grateful that a brave, truth-seeking journalist would take the chances he did. I asked Bill to summarize the importance of the man about whom he wrote his superb book. Here’s what he told me:

Sprigle’s story is especially important in today’s racially divisive times, where history is so often forgotten or deliberately ignored. 

Reading Sprigle’s newspaper series today shows you how awful daily life in the Jim Crow South was in 1948 for ten million black Americans. It also shows you how far the country has come in making blacks equal under law—in other words, simply giving them the basic Constitutional protections they should have always had as humans and Americans.

Sprigle’s story is great history but it’s also incredibly timely. It is pretty obvious that Old Jim Crow was far much worse in every way than the New Jim Crow of today.  But it’s amazing how so many of the serious political issues and social problems blacks had to deal with in the Jim Crow South of 1948 are still with us.

Sprigle talked about things like the high crime rate in black neighborhoods and their demands to white City Halls for better police protection—if they had any at all.

He also talked about black-on-black crime, criminal gangs plaguing black neighborhoods and police shootings of unarmed black men—even by trolley conductors in downtown Atlanta. Sprigle also railed about how lousy black schools were and about the voter intimidation tactics used by officials, politicians and the KKK that scared blacks from even registering to vote.  

Sprigle’s story shows how important first-person journalism can be and how important it is for journalists to get out of the office and hit the ground. He was not naive. He was a seasoned and sophisticated newspaperman who had written stories about blacks in Pittsburgh and was famous for helping the underdog. But like most white people in the North, he had no idea until he got into the Deep South and started living like a black man just how oppressive, how humiliating, how separate but unequal everything was for blacks—whether they were sharecroppers or college professors.

Another fascinating volume, co-authored by Bill, is Undercover in the Land of Jim Crow. It includes all 21 of the columns in Ray Sprigle’s original series that shocked so many.

Get your history of Jim Crow from people who know what they’re talking about, such as Jerrold Packard and Bill Steigerwald and Ray Sprigle, not from politicians or race hustlers more interested in manipulating you than informing you.

It is indisputable, non-partisan and unvarnished historical fact, neither hyped nor one-sided: The Democratic Party owns Jim Crow. It is impossible to separate official, government-enforced racial discrimination from Democratic Party history. In fact, the Democratic Party has long mistreated people by group, not as independent, thinking individuals.

Even today, leading Democrats spurn as “Uncle Toms” those blacks (including a sitting Supreme Court Justice) who walk off the “progressive” plantation to think for themselves.

The party of Wilson, Roosevelt, Byrd and Biden gave us the racist Davis-Bacon Act. That party also stands athwart the schoolhouse door to prevent school choice among the inner-city minorities who need it the most. The sad reality is that Democrats are up to their eyeballs in groupthink, collectivism, the distortion of our past and vote-buying victimhood. Indeed, it seems they create victims so they can then posture as their saviors. When a Republican engages in this stuff, it should be condemned equally as much.

History, especially when it’s painful, should be remembered, not rewritten. And its worst episodes should never be trivialized by cheap, false, political rhetoric.

For Additional Information, See:

30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South by Bill Steigerwald

American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard

Undercover in the Land of Jim Crow by Bill Steigerwald and Ray Sprigle

Ralph Lazo, the Man Who Voluntarily Lived in an Internment Camp by Lawrence W. Reed

When Sears Used the Market to Combat Jim Crow by Brittany Hunter

Davis-Bacon: Jim Crow’s Last Stand by John Frantz

The Reincarnation of Jim Crow by Clint Bolick

Jesse Owens: Character Makes the Difference When It’s Close by Lawrence W. Reed

The Toxic Racialist Obsessions of Joe Biden by Victor Davis Hanson

(An earlier version of this essay was published by in 2021.)

The post The History of Jim Crow Laws Shows Modern Comparisons Are Just Cheap Political Demagoguery was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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