[NOTE: In previous posts (here and here), we’ve seen how southern whites, helped by the growing weariness of the rest of the nation with the post-Civil War “Negro Problem,” regained control of their state governments by 1877 and began, about 1890, to take away the former slaves’ right to vote, despite the addition after the Civil War of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Called “disfranchisement,” this process was only part of the new system erected by southern whites to keep black people “in their place.”
According to the tenets of the “New South Creed,” African Americans were supposed to perform most of the menial labor in the region, including the all-important work in the cotton fields. To do that sort of work in the New South, whites believed, did not require much formal education. Rather, what the supposedly “inferior” blacks needed was an “education” that emphasized manual training and domestic service.
Another aspect of the “New South Creed” was the tenet that whites and blacks desired to live in a world that was rigidly separate but supposedly equal. While racial segregation was certainly not new in the South in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws institutionalized “the already familiar and customary subordination of black men and women” (Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 230). According to Litwack, the particular segment of the African American population targeted by Jim Crow laws comprised members of the first generation born after slavery, young men and women who had not been “schooled,” i.e., disciplined by slavery to accept their continuing subordinate roles in the southern scheme of things.]
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After slavery, former slaves wanted to use their newly-won freedom to accumulate a few acres of land, make something of themselves and for their children. Whites, on the other hand, wanted cheap, exploitable labor. The system that emerged, sharecropping, had all the makings of a compromise at first, but soon created an endless cycle of debt that put whites in the driver’s seat. Given the whites’ expectations and the blacks’ lack of skill and experience outside of agriculture, there were few alternative ways of making a living available for rural African Americans.
As the Jim Crow system evolved, whites used every opportunity to deny African Americans a way out. For example, Southern state governments passed laws to punish emigrant agents or labor recruiters who might have offered blacks a chance to leave the farm for a better paying line of work elsewhere. Having accomplished that, the way was cleared for the development of peculiarly southern methods of social control of former slaves: involuntary servitude based on indebtedness (peonage); the crop lien system; the chain gang; and convict leasing. As Leon Litwack notes, “After all, the real danger posed by Negroes, in the eyes of many whites, lay in the possibility that they might actually succeed, and that such success would be at the expense of whites and subversive of southern society.” (Trouble in Mind, 149)
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So thorough was the system of racial segregation developed in the Age of Jim Crow that, by the time the United States Supreme Court validated the “separate but equal” doctrine in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision did not have a dramatic impact, because it simply pointed out the obvious to African Americans in the South and to Jim Crow sympathizers everywhere. The net effect of “separate but equal” was to dehumanize black men, women, and children.
The justice system in the Jim Crow South was heavily stacked against African Americans. It operated under a double standard, whereby blacks were arrested more frequently and/or punished more severely than whites for the same crimes. (This double standard also was a frequent target of songs by African American Blues singers.) In Leon Litwack’s words, “the perversion of justice had become a lasting legacy of the New South” and helped create “an era of unprecedented racial violence.” (Trouble in Mind, 277-278)
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Using a conservative estimate, Litwack writes that almost three thousand African Americans were lynched between 1889 and 1918 in the South, which meant that two to three black southerners “were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week.” (Trouble in Mind, 284) Those lynched were usually the sons or daughters of former slaves, people “who [unlike their parents] had not yet learned the rituals of deference and submission.” (Ibid.)
When whites attempted to justify lynching, they frequently emphasized the crime of rape allegedly perpetrated upon a white woman by a black male. However, only about 19% of the nearly three thousand black lynching victims were accused of rape. Moreover, if lynching failed to scare African Americans back into their “place,” there was always the possibility that the fear and anger of whites could be taken out on entire black communities, in what were euphemistically referred to as “race riots,” like those in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), New Orleans (1900), and Atlanta (1906).
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One southern state after another fell into line behind Jim Crow, so that, by World War I, racial policies 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: lynching increasingly became a southern pastime, with most of the victims being African American. Moreover, the Ku Klux Klan, dissolved during Reconstruction, was reborn atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving night, 1915, and spread beyond the South in the decade of the 1920s.
Jim Crow laws even kept pace with changing times and technological advances: segregation was extended to taxi cabs, buses, and airplanes (and airports), as those became important modes of transportation in the 1920s and 1930s. No area of southern life was considered too insignificant to require 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.” (C.Vann Woodward, Strange Career of Jim Crow, p.118)
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What options did African Americans living in the Jim Crow South have in the face of this individual, and even communal, violence? An obvious one was to stay in their “place” and “not cause trouble.” Oh, blacks might issue mild protests, so long as they kept them from escalating into confrontations. African Americans could also become what Litwack labels “interior exiles,” turning to drugs and crime to ease their pain and assuage their guilt. Litwack adds that the black musical genre known as the Blues was the product of “the young men and women who had disengaged themselves from the norms and values of conventional black and white society.” (Trouble in Mind, 447)
Perhaps the most desperate African American response to white brutality and oppression was to leave the South. In 1917, 90% of black Americans lived in the South, three quarters of them in rural areas. Fifty years later, 75% lived in cities and less than 45% resided in the South. (Ibid., 482)
The black exodus from the South had begun after the Civil War, within the region, from country to town and from the older South to newer regions like Oklahoma and the Mississippi Delta. In 1879, there was a short-lived departure of southern black “Exodusters” to Kansas. A generation later, there was an ultimately futile effort to find a place for black Americans to live in Africa, culminating in Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement during the 1920s.
The climax of this movement of African Americans out of the South was the so-called “Great Migration.” Between 1916 and 1919, the prospect of work in northern and mid-western factories during World War I attracted half a million black southerners; almost one million more would follow in the 1920s. Abandoning the South was especially attractive to members of the younger generation, who perhaps sought “some kind of redemption through migration.” (Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 495)
Those African Americans who emigrated certainly did not find Heaven in the North or the Midwest, which, like the rest of the nation, were heavily populated by white racists. But, even if they continued to encounter racism, black southern expatriates knew it wasn’t the Hell of the Jim Crow South.
Chafe, William H., et al. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (2001).
Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994).
Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991).
Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998).
Wilkerson, Isabel Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010).
Woodward, C.Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (pb; 1961).
________________. The Strange Career of Jim Crow (3rd revised edition, 1974).
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: