Since writing my last post about post-election racism on Twitter made me want to delve even further into this subject of race in Deep Southern politics, another noteworthy development within that same subject occurred just this week when South Carolina governor Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott to fill the US Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint, making Scott the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction. (Interestingly, you can read this Slate blog about how Gov. Haley was already downplaying Scott’s race on the day he was appointed.) I just have to make one remark on this situation before moving on: a Deep Southern state has now provided the US Senate with its lone black member.
But before that appointment happened, I was in thick of reading and writing about a classic work of Southern history that tackles the complex relationship between race and politics in the South: The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward. Though I am not a historian, the kind of work they do interests me very much, and though I’m not a sociologist this study of post-election racists on Twitter also continues to hold my attention. The history of the Deep South, whether real or imagined, has a tremendous influence on present-day behavior in this region that values tradition so heavily. Many decisions made in the South during the aftermath of slavery and emancipation forged major socio-political components of still-present economic inequality, low per-capita income rates, and racial disparities in educational attainment and incarceration rates.
One of my first moves when I decided to read The Strange Career of Jim Crow was to log it in my “Currently Reading” status on Goodreads. Most of the reviews on Goodreads were positive and thoughtful and gave it high ratings, and the few negative ratings came mostly from people who either admitted they were forced to read it for a class or gave no reasons. This kind of book isn’t for everyone – the writing within the field of history is notoriously dry – but that doesn’t change the fact that the content of The Strange Career of Jim Crow has relevance to every Southern life— no, scratch that— every American life.
My copy of The Strange Career of Jim Crow is an old paperback of the second revised edition from 1965. In his preface, Woodward explains that fortuitous events that he could never have foreseen caused his original 1954 edition to become immediately outdated, having been published the same year that segregation began crumbling, with the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Woodward writes, “The old edition had begun to suffer under some of the handicaps that might be expected in a history of the American Revolution published in 1776, or a history of the first Reconstruction published in 1865” (v). This second revised edition was published at the peak of the Civil Rights movement’s greatest successes, the same year as the Selma-to-Montgomery March and passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Most well known for his voluminous work Origins of the New South, 1877 – 1913, C. Vann Woodward is described on the website of the American Historical Association this way:
. . . almost singlehandedly Woodward demonstrated the region’s complexity and its record of historical discontinuity. Harshly critical of Southern conventional wisdom, especially on matters of race and class, Woodward always regarded himself as a “rebel,” though scarcely with the meaning that most white Southerners would lend that term.
And also this way:
Although his sophisticated use of irony checked any polemical impulse, Woodward as an unabashed liberal believed that history offered moral lessons. Yet his approach was subtle, and he recommended no easy remedies. In fact, he often cast a skeptical eye on popular academic trends. His adroit balancing of message and historical verification gave much of his work a creative tension. Human destiny might be tragic he felt, but there was always hope.
In his “Introduction” to The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Woodward points out a set of facts about Southern history that correct a few myths. First among them: “Purely on the grounds of longevity the Old South did not really last long enough in the larger part of the region to deserve the name ‘old’,” and furthermore, “the so-called ‘New’ South should really be regarded as one of several ‘Old’ Souths” (4). Although Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia were among the early British colonies, the Mississippi Territory was organized later, in 1798; that territory expanded in 1804, and Alabama and Mississippi became states in 1817. Since the Civil War began in 1861, the “Old South,” as a part of The United States of America, didn’t have time to get “old,” and beyond that, its “new” incarnation resembled it very much.
Yet, the “Old South” existed long enough to develop that critical component of its culture that has far outlasted the lives of its founders: “the old assumptions of Anglo-Saxon superiority and innate African inferiority, white supremacy and Negro subordination” (11). Sadly, even after the Old South’s frontier and agricultural ways of life had died out, this dehumanizing attitude toward a whole swath of the population has survived to influence deeply and, in some cases, define the region’s culture, politics, and social life ever since.
Furthermore, the notion of a pre-Civil War South acting on one accord seems less likely, given its setting and logistics. Woodward writes,
For the civilization of the Old South was overwhelmingly rural, and urban life was quite untypical of it. Five Southern states did not have a town with as much as 10,000 population in 1860, and only 7.8 percent of the total population, and an even smaller percentage of the Negroes, lived in towns as large as 4,000. (16-17)
The people of the “Old South” were spread out, with very low population density. Those folks also had few good roads and railroads and no modern communication equipment. So the myth of a region that was united and well-organized at the time of the Civil War is hard to justify, given that travel and communication were slow and difficult in this geopolitical entity that had only existed for about forty years.
Woodward begins “Of Old Regimes and Reconstructions” by offering his perspectives on the Redeemers’ response to Radical Reconstruction that removed the Republican-led federal occupying force in 1877. This chapter describes how legally enforced segregation was invented in the North. Under the Southern slavery system, black and white people had to live commingled, tightly interwoven lives. In an agricultural society, white people could not have lived apart from the black people who worked as their field hands and domestic servants. However, in the North, where slavery had not existed so prevalently and where it was eliminated sooner, racial segregation was commonplace for “freedmen.” So the common myth goes that, when the Civil War ended, Jim Crow segregation began when Southerners were repulsed by their suddenly freed slaves’ newfound rights— but, according to Woodward, historical evidence points to the opposite being true. Northerners had developed an entrenched Jim Crow system first, and the South took that model from them.
Chapter two, “Forgotten Alternatives,” continues on this path of discussing the complexity of the situation, and it also outlines how the South originally had possibilities for doing without the legal aspect of Jim Crow. Woodward writes early in the chapter:
More than a decades was to pass after Redemption [the end of Reconstruction in 1877] before the first Jim Crow law was to appear upon the law books of a Southern state, and more than two decades before the older states of the seaboard were to adopt such laws. There was much segregation and discrimination of an extra-legal sort before the laws were adopted in all the states, but the amount of it differed from one place to another and one time to another. (34)
So, in the 1870s and 1880s, Southern segregation was social, not legal. And I don’t think any reasonable person would ever have expected the South, after losing a brutal military conflict, to adapt from institutional slavery to total equality of the races in a decade or so. Racial discrimination still existed, considering two glaring issues: the commonly accepted dehumanizing ideals that made slavery possible for the consciences of white Southerners, and the logistical, economic and public administration problems inherent in emancipated slaves leaving their work on the plantations to set out (with no money and no resources) looking for better opportunities and long-lost family members.. This scenario led to sad consequences; Woodward writes later in the chapter:
On the contrary, the evidence of race conflict and violence, brutality and exploitation in this very period is overwhelming. It was after all in the ‘eighties and early ‘nineties that lynching attained the most staggering proportions ever reached in the history of that crime. (42)
Woodward finishes the chapter by outlining the three common ideas that circulated as options for resolving the race issue in Southern society: conservative, radical and liberal. The conservatives had the idea to maintain a paternalistic attitude toward the freed slaves; they assumed that black people were unable to take care of themselves, so the legal and social systems should take on this noblesse oblige. The conservatives also viewed the most rabid racism as the unfortunate attitude of poor uneducated whites with no sophistication. The radicals, who were products of the Progressive era, held little prominence and were marked by “rather inconclusive experiments” in racial equality. The radicals unified whites and blacks based on their common economic situation, which made lots of people very nervous. Finally, “the liberal philosophy of race relations, the third approach, received able and forceful expression, but was promptly and almost totally rejected and never put to practice in that period” (45). I can’t imagine a liberal in the South being rejected . . .
According to Woodward, it all came down to apprehensions about who would vote. As the Democrats returned to power after Republican-led Reconstruction, the Populist and Progressive movements threatened the resurgence of these wealthy planters and businessmen, who saw poor whites beginning to understand that their economic predicament linked them more realistically with poor blacks than their race linked them with wealthy whites. The conservative Democrats realized that they were on the verge of facing a coalition that would have them outnumbered on the job site and at the polls, and racism was a viable solution for dividing their political enemies. If racial strife could be sown to counteract the egalitarian message, and if almost all poor white and black men could be disfranchised by qualification requirements and poll taxes, then conservative Democratic power in the South could be ensured when they controlled the polls and the economy, by using the poor uneducated white man’s racism as the very method to exploit him.
Chapter three, “Capitulation to Racism,” describes the terrible fall into all-out Jim Crow, a move that many Southerners at the time regarded as “progressive.” This ideal relates to another forgotten bit of American history raised by Woodward: American imperialism drove the racism that enabled Jim Crow segregation to take hold. The best way to enable our moral consciences to accept our own mistreatment of other human beings is to tell ourselves that “they” are less-than-human, which according to Woodward is how the American government went about its overseas conquests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That attitude, in turn, spread in prevalence among ordinary Americans, allowed the US to become a global power, and also made Jim Crow segregation possible, particularly in the South.
By the time I had finished chapter three, I wanted to jump up and down and cheer for Woodward! As he refutes the racist claim that segregation has always been the natural way of life, and as such should always be, I was mentally screaming, I knew it! This ludicrous idea that white people and “colored” people have never and should never live together is an absurd philosophy. One example of a passage that pleased me follows; the final sentences in chapter two read:
The policies of proscription, segregation, and disfranchisement that are often described as the immutable ‘folkways’ of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin. The effort to justify them as a consequence of Reconstruction and a necessity of the times is embarrassed by the fact that they did not originate in those times. And the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history. (65)
And chapter three continues with a justification of those statements. These myths were fabricated by misnomers, half-truths and political rhetoric, according to Woodward, as a way for powerful people to maintain power.
Chapter four, “The Man on the Cliff,” then sets the reader at the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. Service in World War I had empowered a new generation of young black men, but the 1920s also saw another heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. The blight of the Great Depression affected people of all races, then the global political scene of the 1940s drove a wedge right into the ideals of institutionalized racism. Woodward writes about the window of opportunity that opened for Southern liberals via American opposition to Hitler’s notions of a master race, and also via sociologist Gunnar Myrdal‘s 1944 study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. America was forced to look at its own racist practices, and changes were coming. Midway though the war, FDR created the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to end racist hiring practices in government contract work, then after FDR’s death and the war’s end, Truman severed the Deep Southern bigot’s ties with the Democratic Party by going even further:
In the face of a revolt that eventually took four states of the lower South out of his party, Truman in February 1948 urged an enactment of an F.E.P.C. law, the outlawing of the poll tax and lynching, the elimination of segregation in interstate transportation, a law to enforce fairness in elections, and the establishment of a permanent civil-rights commission. (136)
Woodward’s final chapter, “The Declining Years of Jim Crow,” begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board decision. He moves forward with school de-segregation as a significant focus, describing the political dodges by Southern states governments and futility of these maneuvers. After paying lip service to the hardening of racial attitudes among white Southerners white in response to non-violent demands for equality, Woodward dispels the rhetoric that the Civil Rights movement was a product of “outside agitators” stirring up black people who were otherwise content. He also acknowledges what the article in the Atlantic does too, that Alabama and Mississippi were among the toughest nuts to crack: “In Alabama and Mississippi, resistance has hardened throughout these years,” Woodward writes on page 173, near the end of his book. He finishes with discussions of now-commonly understood Civil Rights demonstrations and activism – the Freedom Rides, James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, etc. – as well as race riots outside the South, too. Sadly, this movement to end racist discrimination had as one of its consequences the invigoration and re-invention of hard-line racism, which has carried “Lost Cause” feelings well beyond the 1960s.
Perhaps this is my own echo-chamber, “epistemic closure” kind of self-satisfactory conclusion – which is a cocky way of saying: perhaps I found in the book what I wanted to find in it – but I was glad to find two things in The Strange Career of Jim Crow that confirmed what I had long believed: the South hadn’t always been this way, and it didn’t ever have to be this way.
The truth revealed in Woodward’s book is clear: historical revisionists – people who alter or distort facts to suit their own aims or agendas – are dangerous people. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Southern politicians convinced white Southerners to follow a course set by a false premise that seemed true when presented in a certain way. Yes, slavery had existed in the South, and yes, racial inequality had not been something that white Southerners had desired or worked for, but no, total segregation did not have a historical basis— if we believe C. Vann Woodward, which legitimate historians do.
This distortion of history for political purposes, which forms a rationale for Woodward’s title The Strange Career of Jim Crow, created the support for a system of legalized inhumane cruelty that was antithetical to American notions of freedom, liberty and justice and that formed one driving motivation of a whole region from the 1890s until the 1970s. To recognize the power of Jim Crow is one thing, but to admit that it was based on a set of un-truths perpetrated to usurp undue influence over millions of exploited laborers and their families, both white and black— is appalling. The fact that it never should have happened should take our collective breath away.
What might also take our breath away is how the slimy residue of that racism is still upon us, now manifesting in the most unsavory ways, like racist posts about the President on Twitter. Sadly, when a person of African descent obtains a position in a powerful office, some Southerners resort back to an old and outdated way of speaking out in defiance against political realities that displease them, which shows us the reason why Tim Scott is the first African American US senator from the South since Reconstruction. The roots for this thinking and behavior run more than a century deep, and moreover its use as a political tactic worked for a very long time. Hopefully, those days are coming to a close in the South.