What is the impact of Jim Crow laws on the Watsons in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963?

The Jim Crow laws directly affect the Watsons during their trip south. Such laws supported racial segregation of businesses such as hotels and restaurants as well as facilities such as restrooms. The parents’ decisions about their itinerary were based on their understanding of such legal restrictions. Failure to abide by such laws would put them at risk of violence or legal action.

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The so-called Jim Crow laws were state and municipal laws enacted in former Confederate territory after the Civil War. Although the laws varied among locations, overall they supported racial segregation that severely restricted African Americans’ actions. A common feature was that businesses could legally discriminate against Blacks by refusing to serve them or maintaining separate facilities for “white” and “colored” people. Among the establishments in which such laws were routinely applied, hotels, restaurants, and bathrooms were among the most common. African American travelers had to plan ahead so that they could travel safely. Not following these laws could lead to verbal and physical attacks by owners and other customers, as well as legal action including fines, arrest, and incarceration.

In The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, the Watson family travels by car from Michigan to Alabama. The parents are well aware that their journey will take them through numerous states that have such laws. They make a detailed plan of their itinerary and their activities both on the road and when they stop. In order to avoid eating at restaurants (including the need to economize), Momma packs a cooler full of sandwiches in advance. They initially consider making two overnight stops, sleeping at motels, but Daddy decides to drive through the night rather than stop.

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