Jim Crow is not a real person. He’s a fictional character invented by a white guy for demeaning performances in minstrel shows. But for generations of Black Americans, Jim Crow is very real and ever present in their lives.
It evolved into the name given to whites’ grudging end to slavery, or almost end to slavery. That is, if you consider an end to slavery separate accommodations -- drinking fountains, restrooms, lunch counters, hotels ... as if you’re dirty or less than human -- separate and substandard schools, racially segregated housing and a lack of equal employment opportunity and the means to really escape economically from bondage. Check that, the real lack of a means to escape was the blockade put up to voting.
All of those denied rights were supposed to end with the abolition of slavery, but really didn’t.
Jim Crow represents the establishment of a network of laws that enforced an American system that called itself “separate but equal.” But it was shabbily unequal, put in place by political entities “elected” by only a portion of the population, the white people. If necessary, these laws were enforced by vigilantes like the hooded Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized the Black community with marauding violence, including lynching. They were followed by their more polite fellow riders along the bigoted trails, who hid their prejudice with legalese.
The advent of television news showed the restrictive South to citizens sheltered in the north, who had no idea. There were enough people of goodwill to generate political pressure that ultimately led to strong laws that were supposed to guarantee basic rights. They were coordinated by landmark rulings from a temporarily conscientious Supreme Court. The justices gave teeth to efforts to get rid of a few of the laws that allowed blatant racial discrimination.
Gradually, reluctant racists had to give way, for a while, to integrated schools, integrated housing and integrated opportunity of all sorts. Suddenly they had to swallow hard and accept the right to mixed-race marriages and next-door neighbors of color.
Except they didn’t give way. The politicians, mainly Republicans, came up with a so-called Southern strategy of appealing to white voters by promoting their continued advantage. That strategy was a creation of Richard Nixon with the enthusiastic backing of the GOP. It won over Southern voters and restored restrictive laws spreading all over the United States.
Their model is Dixie, where the former slaveholders never got over the fact that they had lost their “just cause,” the Civil War, and with it the right to treat people of color as boorish animals.
They were encouraged by politicians who used slick language to camouflage their appeals to the racists -- the Richard Nixons, Newt Gingriches, the Donald Trumps, all the other demagogues who fan prejudice with their rhetoric.
Proving that old forms of hatred don’t flame out in this country, the formerly conscientious Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that have gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and support various campaign finance decisions that make a mockery of ballot equality. Now the Republicans have been emboldened to reinstate Jim Crow as the supervisor of elections. In 43 states, the GOP has introduced ballot box initiatives that are aimed at suppressing the votes of minorities and other Democratic-dominated constituencies that are in various stages of legislative consideration.
The Georgia conservatives -- who survived the Trump years after officials stood against Trump and accepted an overwhelming victory by Democrats -- have now closed the loopholes, making their voter suppression hard to avoid next time around. It infamously even prohibits anyone from offering food and water to those forced to stand in hours-long lines as a result of other restrictions in the measure. It even expands a voter ID requirement that hearkens back to the days when Blacks did not routinely carry driver’s licenses because they were too poor to afford a car.
These and other relics of the days of yore are the days longed for by so many wearing red baseball caps emblazoned with “Make America Great Again.” These yearnings are embraced by millions of MAGA supporters who would return us to the years when the country was an apartheid nation, a confederation of the Jim Crow States of America.
Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.