C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow — September 26, 2015

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow

Mostly white text on a black field. The black field is then rent asunder by what looks like a white lightning bolt, but could also be interpreted as a tear in fabric or in paper

There are many books I could recommend that overlap with the history of the civil-rights movement. J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground remains one of the three or four best books I’ve ever read, focusing on the tragic failure of desegregation in the North. John Lewis’s Walking With The Wind is the civil-rights movement as documented by one of its central participants — a man thrown in jail dozens of times, and on the business end of countless police truncheons. Then there’s Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s somewhat arch but mostly disheartened take on the whimper with which the civil-rights movement ended, and how Richard Nixon exploited white working-class fears to hasten its demise. If you’re looking for some hope that de facto school segregation will end, try Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools In Raleigh. If you wanted to follow the civil-rights movement past the end of the Nixon Administration, you could do worse than to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World And Me — a letter he wrote to his son, in the wake of Eric Garner and and Trayvon Martin, explaining that white society has always fought to control black bodies.

As long as U.S. history is the history of slavery and its aftermath — as long as we remain unable to free ourselves from systemic racism — there will always been a need for these books. C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow is in some ways the granddaddy of these books; it’s the book that Martin Luther King called “the historical Bible of the civil-rights movement.” [1] Even three-quarters of a century after it was written, and even in the light of all those other great works, I think it’s still well worth reading. Its power is in its concision: it was originally delivered as three lectures at the University of Virginia, and it retains that feeling of historical evidence being laid out, methodically and metronomically.

The main take-away is that the South didn’t have to turn to Jim Crow; for a short window between the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870, and the beginning of Jim Crow in earnest around 1900, Southern whites explored the possibility of living in harmony with blacks. Several events conspired to turn the South decisively onto the road to apartheid: Northern liberals lost interest in desegregation and instead sought reconciliation with the South, at the expense of Southern blacks; Southern radicals fought to create sectional discord, which drove Northerners into the arms of moderate but segregationist Southerners; and Teddy Roosevelt carried the white man’s burden to the Philippines, thereby awakening a theory of racial hierarchy (whites near the top, blacks toward the bottom). The point is that it could have gone differently. Woodward implies that, if the South could have been something other than violently racist in the late 19th century, then it could be something other than violently racist in the mid-20th.

None of this is to say that the South was ever a blissful idyll for blacks. As Woodward puts it:

It would certainly be preposterous to leave the impression that any evidence I have submitted indicates a golden age of race relations in the period between Redemption [what Southerners call the end of Reconstruction –SRL] and complete segregation. 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.

Woodward shouldn’t, then, be perceived as an apologist for the South. As a historian from the South, however, he dumps some much-needed ice water on Northern pretensions. The North certainly ended slavery and fought official segregation well before the South did, and of course the North’s economy was not based on slavery as directly as the South’s was. All that said, Northern segregation was and remains of the de facto rather than de jure variety. We segregate by our white families’ fleeing to the suburbs and sending their kids to private schools; we thereby leave, e.g., the Boston Public Schools only 13% white.

None of this is to say that Southern segregation wasn’t real and violent and terrifying. Woodward’s book brought out details of legal desegregation that I hadn’t heard of before — e.g., that the Brown v. Board of Education decision, with its command that desegregation proceed with “all deliberate speed”, actually took at least a decade to be carried out. There’s a danger that most of us — certainly including me — carry in our heads a potted history of the civil-rights movement that goes something like this:

  • Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. So segregation on buses ended.
  • Brown v. Board!
  • Martin Luther King had a dream.
  • King died. :-(
  • Now we have civil rights forever!

It’s the Whig Interpretation of Civil-Rights History.

It’s really worth adding complexity to this potted history. It’s worth, among many other things, throwing out the “one lone woman on a bus” story; the Rosa Parks incident was the product of a disciplined campaign of organization — and when I say “organization”, I mean “organization” of the sort for which people made fun of Barack Obama when he said he was a “community organizer.” This isn’t just re-learning history for re-learning history’s sake; the “one lone woman” story is part of a pernicious libertarian fantasy about the power of individuals. The civil-rights movement was the product of focused, organized political action, in large part centered on black churches. The decline of the civil-rights movement is the story of that organized movement’s fracturing, as a pacifist wing that sought to continue King’s work ran up against a militant wing (represented by Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and others) that was frustrated by the glacial pace of change. A white working-class backlash (heartbreakingly documented in Common Ground) led us to where we are now: people generally seem to acknowledge that progress toward racial equality has stalled; books like Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress make the point that if you count black people in prison correctly, there has been virtually no change in black wealth or black civic involvement. I’m told that Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness makes the point even more forcefully.

It’s hard to feel anything but desperation in the era of Trayvon Martin and the new Jim Crow. I don’t know how Woodward felt when he began writing his Strange Career; did he see himself in the middle of half a century when virulent Southern racism had only become more intransigent? Or did he see that new possibilities were dawning? And did he merely describe what he saw, or did his book contribute — in any small way — toward the revolution that was about to come?

We really feel stuck today. Few people trust the Federal government: many conservatives believe it can only do harm (e.g., Obamacare), and many liberals believe that even its good intentions will be watered down by the power of organized money (e.g., Obamacare). As for local government, Boston’s late Mayor Menino prided himself on being an “urban mechanic” — enacting small changes that maybe would add up, in time, to something big. Big changes, like desegregating Boston public schools whose enrollment fell by 35% between 1970 and 2000 (and whose composition changed from 64% to 13% white), even as the city’s population continues to rise, are implicitly off the table. So are any big public-works projects, even those that would help the poor and working class, after our slog through the Big Dig.

So that leaves off local and Federal government. Where else do we look for the next revolution. Corporations-as-saviors? Hardly. Civil society? Bowling Alone suggests that’s decaying as well. The fight against income inequality might be the spark that we need, but again: individual sparks here and there do not a movement make; we need organization.

All I’m getting at here is that I wonder what Woodward would make of the spot we’re in. Would he see something on the horizon that we don’t? Or would he be as dejected as the rest of us?

[1] – C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History, 1986, p. 92.