Uncle Sam’s Journey Through White Supremacy: The Jim Crow Era (1877-1964)

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I have seen a land right merry with the sun, where children sing, and rolling hills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest. And there in the King’s Highways sat and sits a figure veiled and bowed, by which the traveller’s footsteps hasten as they go. On the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries’ thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

– W.E.B. Du Bois [1]

Introduction

After the Civil War (1861-1865) the history of the United States was marked by three important legislations: the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery; the 14th amendment, guaranteeing American citizens equal protection under the law; and the 15th amendment, granting the right to vote for African American men over the age of 21. For this reason, Reconstruction was a period of great political and social progress for African Americans, who were slowly building their rightful place in society. However, white supremacist sentiments and institutions were still strong in the South, and this resulted in a “massive backlash” against the black communities. Hence, in 1877, the Jim Crow system established a series of white supremacist laws, social apartheid and disenfranchisement, coupled with violence. And that system would creep on African American lives until the 1960s.[2]   

With this in mind, this article argues that the establishment of the Jim Crow system represented the white supremacists’ response to an evolving American society. In other words, this system was the instrument used to ensure the continuation of white dominance over African Americans after the abolition of slavery. And since society was evolving “in favor” of the black community, white supremacists used this powerful legal tool because it helped reinforce the idea of white purity, it consolidated their power, it reaffirmed their superiority and it restored the master/slave image. What is also important to note is that they believed that “slavery was good because it kept blacks under control,” that “civil war was bad because it defended blacks,” and that “reconstruction was worse because it tried to elevate blacks.”[3] Therefore, the status quo had to be strengthened, and the techniques, as well as the ideas that were promoted during the slave regime continued and evolved to serve in the post-reconstruction period, which would become known as the Jim Crow era.    

Reinforcing white purity: The black threat

The Jim Crow system in the South helped reinforce the idea of white purity and the impression that black men represented a constant threat, particularly to white women. Although these beliefs were already engrained in society, laws against interracial marriage and sex in Southern states like Mississippi were quite common after Reconstruction.[4] It is something for a society to have such strong beliefs, but it is something else to pass a law validating such beliefs. It makes the idea of white purity and black threat seem legitimate in the eyes of the population, while it induces fear of exclusion (for white women) and punishment (for black men). In fact, “it was the presumption of both white public and white law that intercourse between white women and black men could result only from rape.”[5] However, a white man having sexual relations with a black woman was not the same, even in cases where it indeed resulted from rape. It was tolerated,[6] and that says a lot about the ideas of “white purity” and “black impurity.”

At the same time, media had a lot to do with these popular views, which resulted in legislation. In the 1830s, the character named Jim Crow (ironically), played by black-faced white actor Thomas “Daddy” Rice, was very popular. He marked the mainstream culture with the image of “the black intruder” in his interpretation of an “uncultured, humorously dangerous runaway slave, insistent on barging in on the white world.”[7] Also, The Clansmen (1905),written by Thomas Dixon, and D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) are good examples of this demonization of black men who raped white women, and of the chivalrous white men coming to their rescue.[8] Certainly, Jim Crow laws were partly legitimized because of these particular individuals, books, plays or films, which influenced popular culture. But then again, the laws also influenced their creations.[9]

Therefore, it is apparent that there was a continuity of white supremacist attitudes in the prohibition of the “mix of the races.” The depiction of the “black beast” and the “delicate white flower” in entertainment greatly influenced Southern mores. After all, it became so much of a threat to the preservation of the white race that they decided to translate these beliefs into law in order to consolidate it.

Consolidating white power: African American disenfranchisement

Disenfranchisement, made possible by Jim Crow laws, was one of the first ways to consolidate white power, and therefore to ensure the continuity of white supremacy. Certainly, because “without the ballot, emancipation lost much of its meaning,” white supremacists’ top priority was to take away African American suffrage rights.[10] Before the 15th amendment, the Democrats, or “the defenders of white supremacy,” often used bullying and any other means necessary to keep black voters away from the polls.[11] And they did so, simply because they could. White supremacy was already so powerful that nobody dared or was able to stop them. In Georgia for example, the Ku Klux Klan, which at its beginning served as the “terrorist wing of the Democratic Party,” pointed guns at blacks who were trying to vote for the Republican Party.[12]

After the ratification of the 15th amendment, Southern states found new legal ways to keep blacks from voting. Indeed, the loopholes that they found in the 15th amendment made it possible to write racist laws, providing that they didn’t mention race. As an illustration, the Mississippi Plan, which established rules for voting, like poll taxes and literacy tests, allowed them to exclude a majority of African American citizens from voting. And with the arrival of the secret ballot, it became much easier to rig elections.[13] Undoubtedly, the fact that politicians could freely bully eligible voters and that white legislators could strip away the African American right to vote (even after the 15th amendment), bears witness to the tremendous power of white supremacy and of its further consolidation in doing so. That is to say that “any law was secondary to the higher law of white supremacy.”[14] Therefore, white supremacy would continue to thrive, forever above the rule of law.     

Reaffirming white superiority: Racial segregation

African Americans were freed from slavery, but because of the desire and need of white supremacists to reaffirm their superiority, they were still excluded from all spheres of society. Indeed, they were denied access to or set aside in basic public services because the “racial code” prohibited “all forms of interracial activity that might imply equality.”[15] That black people’s sole presence alongside white people represented a threat to the expression of white superiority legitimized the segregationist laws of Jim Crow. And in turn, segregation legitimized the feelings of white superiority, because the “truth of the old racial order” dictated that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”[16]

The segregation of public transportation in the 1890s would be the best illustration of the reassertion of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era. Specifically, because it hindered African American’s freedom of movement and of labor (being able to go to work and come back from work),[17] but also because segregated streetcars involved daily “public shaming, degrading, and controlling of a rising black middle class”, who paid their ticket like everyone else.[18] Freedom of movement is one of the most important basic rights,[19] and it was not guaranteed anymore, or at least not comfortably.But then again, what better technique than to distance yourself from someone who represents a danger to your life? Probably to make sure that this person stays away by obtaining a restraining order. In that case, that is precisely what white legislators did to black passengers. 

Restoring a slave/master dialectic: Legitimization of violence

The legitimization of violence in the post-reconstruction era created some kind of “neo-system of slavery”[20] that would favor the white population of the Southern states. Violence (psychological and physical), oppression and fear would be the best means to bring back and modernize a climate where masters owned slaves. Racism, lynching, mass incarceration, poor life conditions, share cropper systems, rape, vigilante committees (like the Ku Klux Klan), harassment and intimidation were all forms of violence exercised on black people.[21] All of these, without exception, became synonyms of the continuation of white supremacy. Violence, may it be physical or psychological, generated fear among the African American community. A paralyzing fear that could be instrumentalized to the advantage of the white community. Actually, in the Jim Crow years as in slavery, violence represented “the instrument of white control” because it calmed “white anxieties by reaffirming the color line and striking fear into black hearts”[22]

Moreover, these acts of violence, especially lynching, would be “the ultimate spectacles of racial otherness, made all the more powerful at the turn of the century by disenfranchisement, segregation, the black rapist hysteria, and other machinations geared toward devaluating and excluding African Americans.”[23] Hence, all these techniques, which were used to ensure the maintaining of a repressive regime targeting blacks (as discussed earlier), were reinforced by violence of all kinds. All would gather to watch these extralegal executions, and all would feel safer when thinking that they were fortunate enough to be on the right side of the color line.

Conclusion

Jim Crow laws conveyed the continuity of white supremacist attitudes and institutions because they reinforced the idea of white purity with the legal validation of social mores; consolidated white power through disenfranchisement; reaffirmed white superiority with segregation or exclusion; and restored slave/master duality by legitimizing violence.Although all this is correct, it is of the utmost importance to understand that the four main points of this article are all interconnected under the larger umbrella of white supremacy and the Jim Crow system. In reality, or out of the context of this article, reinforcing the idea of white purity, consolidating white power, reaffirming white superiority and restoring the slave/master dialectic could not be separated. Social mores, disenfranchisement, segregation, and the legitimization of violence could be relevant in supporting any of these goals. And that is, in a way, extremely representative of the complexity of the Jim Crow system: everything was intertwined, every social construct, and every piece of legislation could reinforce one another. It was “the highest stage of white supremacy.”[24]


[1]. W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969), 29.
[2]. Leonard Moore, “American legislation during the 1877-1940 period” (Lecture, McGill University, September 4, 2018).
[3]. Leonard Moore, “Creating and resisting Jim Crow” (Lecture, McGill University, September 6, 2018).
[4]. Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 15.
[5]. Ibid.
[6]. Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 15.
[7]. Blair L.M. Kelley, Right to ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010),16-17.
[8]. Leonard Moore, “Creating and resisting Jim Crow” (Lecture, McGill University, September 6, 2018).
[9]. Ibid.
[10]. Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 71.
[11]. Laughlin McDonald, A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 21-24.
[12]. Ibid.
[13]. Leonard Moore, “Jim Crow politics” (Lecture, McGill University, September 11, 2018).
[14]. Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 44.
[15]. Ibid, 25.
[16]. Laughlin McDonald, A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 16-17.
[17]. Leonard Moore, “Jim Crow politics” (Lecture, McGill University, September 11, 2018).
[18]. Blair L.M. Kelley, Right to ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010),44.
[19]. Leonard Moore, “Jim Crow politics” (Lecture, McGill University, September 11, 2018).
[20]. Ibid.
[21]. Leonard Moore, “Jim Crow violence” (Lecture, McGill University, September 13, 2018).
[22]. Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 28-31.
[23]. Claude A. Clegg III, Troubled Ground (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 31.
[24]. Leonard Moore, “Jim Crow politics” (Lecture, McGill University, September 11, 2018).

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