Meeting Jim Crow

Meeting Jim Crow

Like many Americans, I knew very little about the context of the civil rights era. I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in elementary school, like everyone else. That’s about it, for me. As a Christian, of course I condemn slavery and racism as evils; a poisonous fruit of the Fall.

However, like so many others, I have recently been assaulted with anti-racism rhetoric that seemingly sprang forth from nowhere. This perspective often comes from Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), a new religion I began writing about a little while ago. I have encountered this anti-racism “training” at work in State government, peddled by unwitting Human Resource personnel so the agency can now say it’s “done something” in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots.

A host of revisionist Christian pastors, all darlings in the woker quarters of the evangellyfish pond, have sallied forth to denounce racism – often employing extra-biblical categories to push a watered-down CRT in the Church. One such well-known black pastor recently called for reparations from white Americans and foolishly cited Exodus 12:33-36 as support.

Well, I want to actually learn something about the civil rights era and its context. I don’t want it from woke Christian pastors, or by radical scholars pushing an agenda. I want it from responsible sources. My studies have only begun, but I wanted to pass along some excellent resources to better understand the context of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights era:

  1. The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward. This classic, endorsed by MLK, Jr., was written by the dean of Southern historians in the mid-1950s after Brown v. Board of Education, and revised three times (the last being in 1974). It advanced the so-called Woodward thesis, that Jim Crow laws did not follow immediately on the heels of the Civil War, but were a calculated step backward after Reconstruction that deliberately disenfranchised the entire black population and reversed racial progress. The thesis is much more nuanced than I’m presenting it (racial prejudice certainly still existed during Reconstruction). But, it’s a horrifying look at how a culture deliberately took a step back towards pure evil.
  2. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow by Richard Wormser. This is a short history of the entire Jim Crow era, with particular focus on eyewitness accounts. It is the most horrifying book I’ve ever read and literally changed my perspective forever. I will never think of my country the same way again. You wonder how the Nazis constructed concentration camps? Then, wonder how a “Christian” people did this to other human beings in America. Sin can warp the mind worse than anything else. Terrible. 
  3. Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King. Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACPs legal strategy to destroy Jim Crow, using the Groveland Four case (from late 1940s Florida) as a foil. One of the most readable, enjoyable books I’ve ever read.
  4. Grand Expectations by James Patterson. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series, focusing on 1945-1974. Essential for capturing the greater context to understand the civil rights era.

I’m listening to the Oxford History entry on the Reconstruction era right now. I plan on listening to a detailed history of the pre-Civil War era slave issue (likely Impending Crisis, by Potter) after that. 

Jim Crow wasn’t inevitable

Jim Crow wasn’t inevitable

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.

Good book … so far

So far, Gilbert King’s book Devil in the Grove, about Thurgood Marshall and his defense of several black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in rural Florida in 1946, is a great book about a horrifying time in our country.

The author is a very good writer. This isn’t always the case. David Garrow’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bearing the Cross, which also earned the Pulitzer Prize and covered a similar subject, reads as though it were written by a mad collector of facts who murdered his editor.

Here’s the opening paragraphs from Devil in the Grove, as a teaser:

IF THAT SON of a bitch contradicts me again, I’m going to wrap a chair around his goddamned head.” One acquittal after another had left Tennessee district attorney general Paul F. Bumpus shaking his head in frustration over the NAACP lawyers, and now Thurgood Marshall was hoping to free the last of the twenty-five blacks accused of rioting and attempted murder of police in Columbia, Tennessee.

The sun had been down for hours, and the start of a cool, dark night had settled over the poolrooms, barbershops, and soda fountains on East Eighth Street in the area known as the Bottom, the rickety, black side of Columbia, where, nine months earlier, the terror had begun.

Just blocks away, on the news that a verdict had been reached, the lawyers were settling back into their chairs, fretfully waiting for the twelve white men on the jury to return to the Maury County courtroom. They’d been deliberating for little more than an hour, but the lead counsel for the defense, Thurgood Marshall, looked over his shoulder and knew immediately that something wasn’t right.

Throughout the proceedings of the Columbia Race Riot trials, the “spit-spangled” courtrooms had been packed with tobacco-chewing Tennesseans who had come to see justice meted out. But the overall-clad spectators were equally intrigued by Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers: by the strange sight of “those niggers up there wearing coats and talking back to the judge just like they were white men.”

Marshall was struck by the eeriness of the quiet, nearly deserted courtroom. The prosecution’s table had been aflutter with the activity of lawyers and assistants throughout the trial, but none of them had returned for the verdict. Only the smooth-talking Bumpus had come back. All summer long he’d carried himself with the confidence that his Negro lawyer opponents were no match for him intellectually. But by relentlessly attacking the state’s case in a cool, methodical manner, Marshall and his associates had worn Bumpus down, and had already won acquittals for twenty-three of the black men on trial.

The verdicts were stunning, and because the national press had defined the riots as “the first major racial confrontation following World War II,” Bumpus was no longer facing the prospect of humiliation just in his home county. The nation was watching and he had begun to unravel in the courtroom, becoming more frustrated, sarcastic, and mean-spirited as the trial progressed.

“Lose your head, lose your case,” was the phrase Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, had drilled into him in law school. Marshall could tell that his adversary, seated alone at the prosecutor’s table, was in the foulest of moods as he was forced to contemplate the political ramifications of the unthinkable: his failure to win a single conviction against black lawyers defending black men accused of the attempted murder of white police in Maury County, Tennessee.

The shock from the summer’s not-guilty verdicts had worn off by November, and Marshall sensed that the white people of Columbia were becoming angrier and more resentful of the fact that this Northern Negro was still in town, making a mockery of the Tennessee courts. He’d watched patiently as Bumpus stacked the deck in his own favor by excusing every potential black jury member in the Maury County pool (there were just three) through peremptory challenges that did not require him to show cause for dismissal. And Marshall had paid close attention to the desperation in Bumpus’s closing statement to the jury, when the prosecutor warned them that if they did not convict, “law enforcement would break down and wives of jurymen would die at the hands of Negro assassins.”

None of it surprised Marshall. He was used to, and even welcomed, such tactics from his opponents because they often helped to establish solid grounds for appeals. But Marshall also noticed that the atmosphere around the Columbia courthouse was growing more volatile.

A political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier now doing public relations work for the NAACP had been poking around the courthouse and had come to believe that the telephone wires were tapped and that the defense lawyers were in danger. Learning this, Marshall refused to discuss any case details or sleeping arrangements over the phones, and the PR representative reported back to Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, that “the situation in the Columbia Court House is so grave that anything may happen at any time.”

White issued a memorandum to NAACP attorneys, demanding “no telephone calls be put through to Columbia or even to Nashville [where Marshall was staying] unless and until Thurgood says that it is safe to do so.” White noted that “we are dealing with a very desperate crowd” and want nothing to “jeopardize the lives of anyone, particularly persons as close and as important to us as Thurgood and his three associates.” White even contacted the U.S. attorney general’s office and warned that if anything happened to Marshall while he was in Tennessee, it would “create a nation-wide situation of no mean proportions.”

Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (New York: Harper-Collins, 2012; Kindle reprint 2013), 7-9.

A (unwelcome?) blast from the past

Here is another uncomfortable and disturbing excerpt about race relations in the post-war years from James Patterson’s wonderful book Grand Expectations: The United States 1945 – 1974, part of the famed Oxford History of the United States series:

By 1944 the protests of blacks—for Randolph and other leaders military desegregation was a top priority—had a modest effect on the armed services. The navy slowly moved toward integrated units. The army, at a loss for manpower during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, pressed blacks into combat, with positive results. But segregation persisted in the army, and racial tensions became intense.

“My God! My God!” army chief of staff General George Marshall exclaimed, “I don’t know what to do about this race question in the Army.” He added, “I tell you frankly, it is the worst thing we have to deal with. . . . We are getting a situation on our hands that may explode right in our faces.”

Though Marshall did nothing about the situation, he correctly assessed the more militant mood. A black Alabama corporal explained in 1945, “I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I’m hanged if I’m going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirreee-bob! I went into the Army a nigger; I’m comin’ out a man.”

Expectations such as these unavoidably sharpened racial conflict in the postwar South, where more than two-thirds of American Negroes still lived—mass migrations notwithstanding—in the late 1940s. There, little had changed since the late nineteenth century. Most southern blacks—at least 70 percent—lived in poverty in 1945.

Virtually everything remained segregated: schools, churches, parks, beaches, buses, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, rest rooms, drinking fountains, and other public accommodations. All but a few white southerners believed theirs was the superior race, with a natural right to supremacy. Mississippi senator James Eastland, later to become an influential national spokesman for white racism, expressed this view without embarrassment in a wartime speech against the FEPC: “What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”

Myrdal conceded that whites in the South “do not see the handwriting on the wall. They do not study the impending changes; they live again in the pathetic illusion that the matter is settled. They do not care to have any constructive policies to meet the trends.” Racist feelings promoted institutional discrimination and a virtual totality of white power. Deep South states in the early 1940s admitted almost no black lawyers, judges, or policemen.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court decision against white primaries, Negroes in the lower South faced a range of ruses and outrages—poll taxes, impossibly designed “literacy” tests, violent intimidation—that deprived them of any voice in politics. The emblem of the Democratic party in Alabama (Republicans did not matter) was a lusty gamecock under a scroll that read WHITE SUPREMACY.

Resting very close to the surface of these white concerns, especially in the South, were complicated feelings about sex between the races. There was irony here, of course, for white men continued, as they had throughout American history, to demand sexual favors from economically and legally defenseless black women. Miscegenation was the great open secret of sexual life in the South. But state laws criminalized interracial sex as well as racially mixed marriages. (Until 1956 Hollywood’s Motion Picture Code forbade interracial marriage to be shown; no black man embraced a white woman on screen until 1957.)

And woe to black men in the South who seemed too friendly with white women. By 1945 whites less often retaliated against such behavior by lynching—there were nineteen reported lynchings of Negroes between 1940 and 1944, compared to seventy-seven between 1930 and 1934 and forty-two between 1935 and 1939—but all black American men knew that white violence was an ever-present possibility following any kind of “uppity” behavior, no matter how exaggerated by whites, especially if it was thought to threaten the supposed purity of southern white womanhood. Southern blacks who escaped violence, only to be brought to trial for such alleged offenses, faced all-white judges and juries and had virtually no possibility of justice.

Patterson, Grand Expectations, 24-25.

Uncomfortable Vignettes

I’m reading James Patterson’s volume Grand Expectations: The United States 1945 – 1974. The work is part of the acclaimed Oxford History of the United States series, which is perhaps the most authoritative historical survey available. Ditch your partisan sources and read some volumes in this series. It will open your eyes and make you a more responsible and informed citizen.

I wish to offer an excerpt from Patterson’s discussions of race in America in the post-war period. Specifically, the murder of Emmett Till in August 1955:

One of the most shocking incidents involved the killing in August of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, an area that was two-thirds black and where no black person was on the rolls of registered voters or of juries. Till’s “crime” was to whistle at a white woman in a grocery store.

Hearing of the transgression—a taboo in much of the Deep South—the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, John Milam, drove to the sharecropper shack of Moses Wright, Till’s great-uncle, snatched Till, and drove off with him. Three days later Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River. He had been shot in the head and tied to a cotton gin fan so that he would sink. His body was badly mangled.

Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, had the body shipped back to Chicago, where she displayed it in an open casket for four days. Thousands of people paid their respects.

National media carried the story to the country. To the surprise of many Americans who understood what Mississippi “justice” was like in such cases, Bryant and Milam were actually arrested and charged with murder. The trial, which took place before crowds of reporters, took place in September. But it was heard before an all-white all-male jury and was a charade and a circus.

The sheriff greeted black people attending the trial with “Hello, niggers.” Blacks, including reporters, were segregated in the courtroom. Wright courageously testified and identified Bryant and Milam as the abductors.

But the defense attorney played openly to local white prejudices, reminding the jurors in his summation, “I am sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.” The jury took only an hour to deliver verdicts of not guilty. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” a juror explained, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

A grand jury, ignoring Wright’s eyewitness account, later declined to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping; their bail was returned, and they went free. Wright dared not return to his shack, moved to Chicago, and never came back home.

Patterson, Grand Expectations, 395-396