Credit: Library of Congress
Jim Crow Laws
The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as "Jim Crow" represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the American South for three quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s. The laws affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants. "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs were constant reminders of the enforced racial order.
In legal theory, blacks received "separate but equal" treatment under the law — in actuality, public facilities for blacks were nearly always inferior to those for whites, when they existed at all. In addition, blacks were systematically denied the right to vote in most of the rural South through the selective application of literacy tests and other racially motivated criteria.
The Jim Crow system was upheld by local government officials and reinforced by acts of terror perpetrated by Vigilantes. In 1896, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson, after a black man in New Orleans attempted to sit in a whites-only railway car.
In 1908, journalist Ray Stannard Baker observed that "no other point of race contact is so much and so bitterly discussed among Negroes as the Jim Crow car." As bus travel became widespread in the South over the first half of the 20th century, it followed the same pattern.
"Travel in the segregated South for black people was humiliating," recalled Diane Nash in her interview for Freedom Riders. "The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use the public facilities that white people used."
Transit was a core component of segregation in the South, as the 1947 Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) pamphlet and Bayard Rustin song, "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow" attests. Keeping whites and blacks from sitting together on a bus, train, or trolley car might seem insignificant, but it was one more link in a system of segregation that had to be defended at all times — lest it collapse. Thus transit was a logical point of attack for the foes of segregation, in the courtroom and on the buses themselves.
It would take several decades of legal action and months of nonviolent direct action before these efforts achieved their intended result.