C. Vann Woodward was a celebrated historian of the American South. His most well-known work is The Strange Career of Jim Crow, originally published in 1955 and updated for the last time in 1974. He aimed to explain why and how, exactly, we went from (1) the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction to (2) a segregation more complete than anything experienced in the antebellum, pre-war South.
His startling thesis was that the Jim Crow laws did not follow immediately on the heels of the Civil War, but came perhaps 30 years later and destroyed the (in some quarters) considerable progress that had been made in race relations. This is known as the “Woodward thesis.” He explains:
The obvious danger in this account of the race policies of Southern conservatives and radicals is one of giving an exaggerated impression of interracial harmony. There were Negrophobes among the radicals as well as among the conservatives, and there were hypocrites and dissemblers in both camps. The politician who flatters to attract votes is a familiar figure in all parties, and the discrepancy between platforms and performance is often as wide as the gap between theory and practice, or the contrast between ethical ideals and everyday conduct.
My only purpose has been to indicate that things have not always been the same in the South. In a time when the Negroes formed a much larger proportion of the population than they did later, when slavery was a live memory in the minds of both races, and when the memory of the hardships and bitterness of Reconstruction was still fresh, the race policies accepted and pursued in the South were sometimes milder than they became later.
The policies of proscription, segregation, and disfranchisement that are often described as the immutable ‘folkways’ of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin.
The effort to justify them as a consequence of Reconstruction and a necessity of the times is embarrassed by the fact that they did not originate in those times. And the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history.C. Van Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3rd ed. (New York: OUP, 2002; Kindle ed.), 65.
Now, that’s something to chew on. Here’s something more – where were the Christians in the South as this reversion to evil took place?
Note: The feature photograph (above) depicts Sheriff Willis McCall, of Lake County, FL, in November 1951 moments after he murdered one man and shot another during a fake “escape attempt” he staged as he transported both men to a State prison. This case of the so-called “Groveland Four,” in which his department framed four innocent men for the illusory rape of a white woman, is a poster child for the evils of the Jim Crow laws.