Reports of the Death of Jim Crow Prove Greatly Exaggerated
One of America’s most cherished myths is that the civil rights movement killed Jim Crow. It didn’t. For more than a century, that dirty bird has proven itself almost immortal.
Who was—who is—Jim Crow? For the record, he is both much less and much more than a man. In 1828, an elderly black stableman, the property of a Kentuckian named Crow, performed an act that caught the eye of the white minstrel Thomas “Daddy” Rice. After blackening his face with burnt cork and dressing in tattered rags, a grinning Rice mimicked the stableman’s act, dancing and singing in black dialect:
Weel about, and turn about
And do jis so;
Eb’ry time I weel about,
I jump Jim Crow.
White audiences loved the act, minstrelsy became America’s most popular form of mass entertainment, and “Jim Crow” entered the national vernacular. Things got even uglier in the 1890s, for reasons that remain muddy, when Jim Crow became much more than a degrading caricature. He became synonymous with the viciously enforced laws that separated and subjugated black people across the South.
Even today, myths endure about that old brute Jim Crow. One of the most cherished is that he died when the civil rights movement culminated in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a pair of exclamation points to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision a decade earlier that had outlawed school segregation. But, as recent events and a selection of books both old and new reveal, Jim Crow is far from dead. He’s alive and well and living in every corner of the USA. Jim Crow, it turns out, is many-hued, resilient, and quite possibly unkillable.
White Jim Crow
Martin Luther King Jr. called C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.” Originally published in 1955—the year of the Montgomery bus boycott and Emmett Till’s lynching—the book begins by disposing of the widely held misconception that Jim Crow was born in the ashes of Reconstruction, when federal troops withdrew from the South a dozen years after the end of the Civil War and, in effect, left the unanswered questions about race relations and reunion in the hands of white Southerners.
The rigid legal separation of the races across the South, Woodward points out, was not codified until the turn of the 20th century, a quarter-century after the collapse of Reconstruction. Jim Crow laws were built on white Southerners’ iron conviction that the white race is superior to the black race, intellectually, morally, and physically. Therefore, the reasoning went, whites and blacks must be kept separate from cradle to grave—in hospitals, schools, public transit, parks, restaurants, theaters, hotels, churches, prisons, and graveyards. An Alabama law even made it illegal for whites and blacks to play checkers together. There was never any pretense, despite the wording of the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, that there would be anything equal about these separate worlds.
The key to Jim Crow’s survival was disenfranchisement of the black voter, which was accomplished through literacy tests and poll taxes and, when they proved inadequate, intimidation and terror.
“In the early years of the 20th century,” Woodward writes, “it was becoming clear that the Negro would be effectively disenfranchised throughout the South, that he would be firmly relegated to the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and that neither equality nor aspirations for equality in any department of life were for him.” Jim Crow laws, Woodward adds, “constituted the most elaborate and formal expression of sovereign white opinion on the subject.”
Black Jim Crow
But what about black opinion—and experience—of Jim Crow? Leon F. Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, published in 1998, contains a blurb from C. Vann Woodward himself: “This is the most complete and moving account we have had of what the victims of the Jim Crow South suffered and somehow endured.”
Litwack, who is white, manages to get inside the minds of the victims of Jim Crow, their terrors and aspirations, their coping mechanisms, their occasional but too-rare victories. He does this by telling the stories of the “daily struggles” of obscure, powerless, and usually poor blacks, dissecting their sense of helplessness in the face of the large and small indignities they suffered. It was a world in which a black man, or woman, could get mercilessly punished—or killed—for looking a white person in the eye, for becoming too educated or prosperous, for daring to own land or attempting to vote.
In Litwack’s telling, Jim Crow was a response to the changes in black aspirations and behavior brought on by Reconstruction, when former slaves got their first brief taste of voting, holding political office, serving on juries, getting an education, working for themselves. Litwack quotes a black South Carolinian, Sam Gadsden, born in 1882: “The white people began to begrudge these [n-words] their running around and doing just as they chose. That’s all there is to segregation, that caused the whole thing. The white people couldn’t master these [n-words] anymore so they took up the task of intimidating them.” W.E.B. Du Bois put it a bit less earthily: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
As Litwack and historian David Oshinsky point out, life under Jim Crow was worse than slavery for many blacks. A fleeting taste of freedom only sharpened the bitter realities of sharecropping, convict leasing, the Ku Klux Klan, the lynching bee, and other staples of Jim Crow.
Music, as Litwack repeatedly demonstrates, had always been vital to survival for African slaves and their descendants. As W.C. Handy wrote in his autobiography, Father of the Blues, “Southern Negroes sang about everything. Trains, steamboats, steam whistles, sledgehammers, fast women, mean bosses, stubborn mules—all become subjects for their songs. They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect, anything from a harmonica to a washboard.” The blues was fed by these rich musical sources, as Litwack notes, including “chants, work songs, field hollers, ring shouts, and country breakdowns.”
Tyehimba Jess, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, adds that when slavery and Jim Crow denied them conventional literacy, blacks had to adapt: “They were forced to forge another kind of literacy through the music.” But for many, the music could not provide sufficient balm or escape, and so they joined the millions who headed north and west in the last century’s Great Migration. As the bluesman Cow Cow Davenport sang it:
I’m tired of being Jim Crowed, gonna leave this Jim Crow town,
Doggone my black soul, I’m sweet Chicago bound…
Albino Jim Crow
Jim Crow wasn’t content with dominating the lives of black and white Southerners; he even found it necessary to dominate the lives of albinos. In her fascinating and heartbreaking new book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, veteran reporter Beth Macy tells the story of the African-American albino brothers George and Willie Muse, who, sometime near the turn of the 20th century, were kidnapped under mysterious circumstances by a circus traveling through their hometown, a remote tobacco patch in southwest Virginia called Truevine. As the subtitle suggests, this is a book about a mother’s quest to find and reclaim her sons. But as with so many stories spawned by Jim Crow, this one got complicated.
Macy, a tireless reporter who worked this story for a quarter-century, concludes that George and Willie were definitely “exploited, made to work without pay, then traded between various showmen like chattel.” Their African features, nearly white skin, woolly white dreadlocks and jittery, light-sensitive eyes made them a popular sideshow attraction. They also became accomplished musicians, and were billed variously as “The Ethiopian Monkey Men,” “Darwin’s Missing Links,” “The Ambassadors from Mars,” and “Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages.”
“As albinos,” Macy writes, “they were among the rarer finds, somewhere between a giant and a limbless man in the freak-show pecking order.” But Macy digs up unsettling evidence that their mother, Harriet, may have contracted for them to join the circus and went looking for them only when payments for their services stopped making their way to her in Truevine. This was one of the unspoken horrors of Jim Crow: poor parents forced to turn their children into wage earners. For light-sensitive George and Willie Muse, it could be argued that working as sideshow freaks was preferable to pulling tobacco under a scalding Southern sun. Macy poses the essential question: “Who is anyone to judge the pressures facing an illiterate washerwoman raising five children alone in rural Virginia during the harshest years of Jim Crow?”
Whatever the precise circumstances of George and Willie’s departure from Truevine, Macy’s book paints a vivid portrait of life under Jim Crow for small-town and rural blacks and their “doubly different” albino offspring. In nearby Roanoke, Virginia, blacks were denied factory jobs and forbidden from living on the same block with whites. The divide was so rigid that even the parrots were racists. Macy interviews an elderly black woman who recalls walking to her segregated school through a white neighborhood where a woman kept trained parrots on her screened-in porch. Whenever a group of black school kids approached, the parrots would squawk: “See them little [n-words] coming.”
The story of George and Willie Muse, remarkably, had an ending that was close to happy. They had long, successful careers with the circus, and after a protracted legal battle mounted by their mother, they got a portion of the money they had earned. They returned home to southwest Virginia and lived in comfort for many years amid loving family and friends. As one of their living descendants puts it, “They came out on top.” What were the odds of that?
The New Jim Crow
After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the term “post-racial” entered the American lexicon. It has proven to be a fantasy conjured by overly optimistic pundits who believed that by electing their first black president, Americans had finally slipped the bonds of four centuries of racism.
In 2011, Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, published an important and necessary book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which demolished the comforting fantasy that Americans had bridged the racial divide. Alexander did this by focusing on the appalling facts that the United States has imprisoned some 7 million people, and a disproportionate number of prisoners (and probationers and parolees) have colored skin. Selective law enforcement, mandatory sentencing rules, and the resulting mass incarceration have created what Alexander calls “a racial caste system.”
The point is valid and valuable, but unfortunately Alexander’s explanation of its causes is too narrow. She blames the New Jim Crow entirely on President Ronald Reagan’s unleashing of a War on Drugs in 1982—three years before crack cocaine began ravaging the nation’s inner cities—a war waged vigorously by Reagan’s successors (most notably Bill Clinton), with the result that the prison population has soared even as the crime rate has declined to historic lows.
Alexander’s focus on the War on Drugs, while valid, ignores the more nuanced forces that helped birth the New Jim Crow. In his new book Locked In, John F. Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, acknowledges that mass incarceration is “one of the biggest social problems the United States faces today,” but he then proceeds to debunk the “standard story” put forth my Alexander and others—that today’s appalling rates of incarceration are driven exclusively by the racist persecution of minorities for nonviolent drug crimes. In fact, Pfaff points out, since the rising wave of incarcerations peaked around 2010, nonviolent drug offenders have accounted for only about one-fifth of new prisoners. The War on Drugs, he concludes, “simply hasn’t sent enough people to state prisons for it to be a major engine of state prison growth.”
So what is the engine? Pfaff posits that it’s a pair of linked inequities: woefully overworked public defenders going up against elected prosecutors who wield virtually unfettered power to threaten arrestees with stiff sentences—and lots of them—a ploy that results in plea bargains in 95 percent of all convictions. Only a small fraction of the people in prison today were sent there by a jury of their peers, a circumvention of one of the pillars of American democracy. Regardless of the actual crime rate, no district attorney facing re-election can afford to be labeled “soft on crime.” The tools are there for prosecutors to send legions to prison, and most prosecutors are happy to use them.
Events since the publication of The New Jim Crow have further eroded Alexander’s one-note argument. In her epilogue to Truevine, written in 2015, Beth Macy states, “In the past year, 32 states have enforced new voter identification requirements that disproportionately disenfranchise poor and minority voters, and 26 unarmed black men have been fatally shot by police across the United States of America.”
This political chicanery and physical violence are surely facets of the New Jim Crow, and they’ve spawned an admirable wave of activism that points out, inadvertently but invaluably, that any nation that needs to be reminded that Black Lives Matter is not a nation that has progressed very far.
Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated North Carolina legislature redrew the state’s General Assembly districts in a fashion so redolent of Jim Crow that federal judges struck 28 of them down, saying they were “racially gerrymandered in violation of the equal protection clause.”
A May 14 front-page story in The New York Times reported that, even as numerous state legislatures are shrinking their prison populations and downgrading nonviolent drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that federal prosecutors should put more people in prison for longer periods, raising fears among reformers, including many conservatives, “that the Trump administration was embracing failed, even racist, policies.”
No surprise there. Sessions, after all, serves a president who borrowed a page from Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and promised to get tough on crime and, for good measure, erect a wall along one of our two international borders and bar citizens from countries dominated by a particular religion. All of these familiar tactics—disenfranchisement, police brutality, xenophobia, along with the twinned national disgraces of racially tainted law enforcement and mass incarceration—make up the New Jim Crow. Who, it turns out, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Old Jim Crow.
Yes, Jim Crow is alive and well and living in every corner of the USA. He’s still many-hued and resilient. And he’s as unkillable as ever.