[NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts tracing the long road by which I finally arrived at one of my favorite courses, “The History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Previously, we have looked at an elective course offered in the late 1970s, “The South and the Sectional Image”; and at an introduction to a panel discussion about “Myth and Reality in Recent Southern History,” from 1978. Today’s installment is another introduction, this one to a panel discussion featuring several of my Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS) colleagues, who drew on their own lives to offer, in our “Senior Lecture Series,” vignettes about life in the Jim Crow South (Spring 1991), from both black and white perspectives. This session helped to convince me that, if I ever had the chance to teach a course on the Modern Civil Rights Movement, I would spend quite a bit of time looking at the so-called “Age of Jim Crow.”]
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In a speech at a recent conference on Southern history, Hodding Carter III, Mississippi journalist and commentator on PBS, complained that young people in the South know less about southern history than they used to and that most white college students today are more familiar with MTV than with the struggle of blacks in the South for civil rights. I hope that is not the case here. Because this school is located in the region’s most vibrant city and because all of us, students and teachers alike, are southerners by birth or adoption, we have never stinted on our coverage of southern history.
In Atlanta, which takes pride in both Margaret Mitchell and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., how could we in good conscience ignore slavery, the Civil War, and the modern civil rights movement? Still, there is one area where I have long felt we could do more, the era before the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation, when “Jim Crow” laws, rigidly segregating all aspects of southern life on the basis of race, were in force.
What the noted Southern historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called “the strange career of Jim Crow” is far from over, but we can say that the nation has at least turned a corner in the long struggle to ensure equal treatment for all its citizens. This morning we would like to take you back to the days of the segregated South. It was an era of contradictions: a person’s worth was measured, by others if not by him or herself, by skin color; and, at the same time, the era of Jim Crow bred both the modern civil rights movement and its most determined, tenacious opponents.
I’d like to begin with a brief sketch of the rise and fall of the segregated South. Then the other members of the panel will take over. I have asked each of them to use personal and family experiences to try to give you some idea what life was like, for blacks and whites, in the heyday of “Jim Crow.”
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Before 1860, racial segregation was more characteristic of the North and West than of the South, where the “peculiar institution” of slavery required constant contact between the races. Attempts to establish rigid racial segregation in the South during Reconstruction were disallowed by the victorious North. While some extra-legal segregation developed in various parts of the region and some local and state laws tried to institute the practice, passage by Congress of the 1867 Reconstruction Act and, especially, the 1875 Civil Rights Act, led to demonstrations by southern blacks against incipient “Jim-Crowism.”
Conservative southern whites, known as “Redeemers,” had regained control of their states by 1877, but there was no immediate move to extend segregation. Instead, blacks became pawns in a power struggle among various groups of white southerners. A very small band of white “liberals” argued for racial equality; upper-class white conservative “Redeemers” tried with some success to use support for black suffrage to lull the federal government into ignoring southern race relations, woo northern investors, and, most importantly, offset the anger of southern poor whites who were trying to wrest control of state governments from the Redeemers.
The South finally adopted full-blown racial segregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not because of a sudden mass conversion to racism but because, for various reasons, northern liberals, southern conservatives, and southern liberals relaxed their opposition to Jim Crow policies. Reflecting this mood, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of important decisions, chipped away at laws protecting blacks from segregation and, more significantly, validated southern measures imposing a Jim Crow system.
In 1883, in the Civil Rights Cases, the Court ruled parts of the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional, arguing that the 14th Amendment could not be stretched to protect blacks from private acts of discrimination, only from public (governmental) ones. In 1896, the Court ruled, in Plessy v. Ferguson, that segregation in public facilities was acceptable if facilities provided for blacks were equal to those used by whites. Two years later, inWilliams v. Mississippi, the Court approved Mississippi’s plan to deprive blacks of the right to vote.
One southern state after another fell into line behind Jim Crow, so that, by World War I, racial politics in the South were strikingly similar to those employed by the white rulers of South Africa. The system was enforced by law but also by violence when necessary. For example, lynching increasingly became a southern pastime, and the Ku Klux Klan, dissolved during Reconstruction, was reborn atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving night, 1915.
Jim Crow laws kept pace with changing times: segregation was extended to taxi cabs, buses, and airports as those became important modes of transportation in the 1920s and 1930s. No area of southern life was considered too insignificant to need the tender touch of Jim Crow. As C. Vann Woodward pointed out, “A Birmingham [Alabama] ordinance got down to particulars in 1930 by making it ‘unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other’ at dominoes or checkers.” (Strange Career, p.118)
Again for a variety of reasons, the tide began to turn against Jim Crow in the 1940s. Until the mid-1950s, the lead in this first phase of what Woodward calls the “Second Reconstruction” was taken by the executive and judicial branches of the national government, while Congress and the public remained unresponsive. The culmination of this phase was the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawing segregation in public schools. For the next decade, Congress, pushed and prodded by public sympathy for the suffering of heroic, non-violent civil rights demonstrators at the hands of angry southern whites, in graphic scenes televised each night on national news programs, assumed leadership of the “Second Reconstruction.” The result was laws intended to restore the civil rights (1964) and voting rights (1965) that had been stolen from blacks over the previous century.
[NOTE: African slaves first appeared in Britain’s American colonies in 1619; slaves were legally freed (by the 13th Amendment) in 1865. Between 1865 and about 1900, the freedmen and freedwomen lost their newly-won rights to the forces of “Jim Crow.” The Supreme Court began the process of desegregating public schools after 1954. If you do the math, you will see that between 1619 and 1991, blacks have been in America for 372 years, but they have only been legally “free and equal” for about 70 of those years (1865-1900; 1954-1991), and, even during those years, “free and equal” depended upon where they lived.]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: