Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Ghost of Jim Crow

This generation, today’s youth, does not relate to the dehumanizing indignities that were imposed upon their forefathers – for example, the origin of certain terms that were used to identify those indignities. One such term was Jim Crow. It originated in a song performed by Daddy Rice, a white minstrel show entertainer in the 1830’s. Rice covered his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork to resemble a black man as he sang and danced a routine in the caricature of a silly black person.

By the 1850’s, this belittling blackface character, one of several stereotypical images of black inferiority in American popular culture, was a standard act in minstrel shows of the day. The term Jim Crow became synonymous with the concept of segregation directed specifically at African Americans in the late nineteenth-century. It is not clear why this term was selected; however, what is clear is that by 1900 the term was generally identified with those racist laws and actions that deprived African Americans of their civil rights by presenting them as inferiors and subordinates.


It was around this time that the term entered into the lexicon of racial bigotry, after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), a suit brought by the New Orleans Committee of Citizens. It appeared as many southern states tried to thwart the efforts and gains made during Reconstruction following the Civil War.

The Committee of Citizens arranged for Homer Plessy’s arrest in order to challenge Louisiana’s separate-but-equal segregation laws. Their argument was “we, as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred,” referring to the Confederacy. Does this sound a little like today’s “Tea Party”? The Supreme Court agreed; as a result of that fateful decision, a policy of segregation became the law of the land that lasted more than sixty years.

Reconstruction allowed African Americans to make great progress in building their own institutions, passing civil rights laws, and electing officials to public office.  In response to these achievements, southern whites launched a vicious, illegal war against southern blacks and their white allies. In most places, whites carried out this war under the cover of secret organizations, such as the KKK.  Thousands of African Americans were killed, brutalized, and terrorized in those bloody years.  Remember that anywhere south of Canada was considered south as this was the law of the land.

The federal government attempted to stop the bloodshed by sending in troops and holding investigations, but its efforts were far too limited and frankly were not intended to solve the problem. Therefore, black resistance to segregation was difficult because the system of land tenancy, known as sharecropping, left most blacks economically dependent upon planter landlords, and merchant suppliers. In addition, white terror at the hands of lynch mobs threatened all members of the black family – adults and children alike. This reality made it nearly impossible for blacks to stand up to Jim Crow because such actions might bring the wrath of the white mob on one's parents, brothers, spouse, and children.

Few black families were economically well off enough to buck the local white power structure of banks, merchants, and landlords. To put it succinctly: impoverished and often illiterate southern blacks were in a weak position to confront the racist culture of Jim Crow. To enforce the new legal order of segregation, southern whites often resorted to even more brutalizing acts of mob terror including race riots. And ritualized lynchings were regularly practiced to enforce this immoral agenda.

Some historians see this extremely brutal and endemic commitment to white supremacy as breaking with the south's more laissez-faire and paternalistic past. Others view this "new order" as a more rigid continuation of the "cult of whiteness" at work in the south since the end of the Civil War. Both perspectives agree that the 1890’s ushered in a more formal racist south and one in which white supremacists used law and mob terror to define the life and popular culture of African American people as inferior.

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