Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jump Jim Crow

I find myself now reading Trouble in Mind, by Leon Litwack, which deals expressly with the Jim Crow Era in the South.  This was one of the books Chartres had recommended years ago. 

The first chapter entitled Baptisms is a collection of oral histories which describe the cruel and often dehumanizing treatment Blacks suffered in the South.  Some very appalling stories.  There are recollections by Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison, Rosa Parks, Richard Wright, among others.  What makes these stories deeply unsettling is that the Federal government did nothing to stop the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South.  Surprising, when you consider that Rutherford B. Hayes relied on Black Republican votes to win key Southern states in the hotly disputed 1876 election.

Subsequent Presidents played lip service to Blacks, but no President was willing to step out on the limb and enforce the new Constitutional amendments, essentially allowing the Southern states to roll back all the hard-earned gains made by Blacks in the South.  No book better described these gains than W.E.B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction in the America

C. Vann Woodward covered much of this ground in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, but it appears that Litwack goes much further in his exploration of this troubled era.


  1. I have always known about that period of American history, but it's still very hard to read about the specifics. The federal government did not step in but then neither did local government. Somehow black men in jail would mysteriously be found hanging the next morning. Some murders to this day haven't been "solved" or the criminals brought to justice.

    Interesting that as I type this, the "day in history" to the right of this little screen is Kristallnacht.

  2. You can't really expect local government to step in, as the states set the laws. What galls me is how little the Federal government did to stop the heinous crimes being committed against Blacks, including lynching.

    The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was blocked by the Senate in 1922, although Harding apparently supported the bill. The Great FDR would not stand behind a similar Costigan-Wagner Bill in 1935 for fear of losing the 1936 election. Roosevelt didn't start prosecuting lynching until 1939, but the Civil Rights section of the Justice Dept. failed to win any convictions until 1946.

  3. I meant state and local (i.e., not federal).

    When you think about it, it does seem odd that during that time the federal government would step in to protect a citizen of any state. In that way, I suppose it could be argued that the South really did win the war for "states' rights."

    I"m reading about the period around WWI when anti-immigrant sentiment was at another one of its highs. Congress passed a no-immigration law, Wilson vetoed it, so Congress overruled him. Without the ability to bring in immigrant workers, crops (particularly cotton) were threatening to die on the vine. Already by that period, African Americans were beginning to move north and were not available as a permanently available temporary workforce.

  4. I'm really enjoying the discussions of different books on similar topics/time periods. It adds another dimension to the books I'm reading.

    When I get through the two I'm reading now, I'm going to pick up one on WWI and the Middle East.


  5. As much as I admire Foner's Reconstruction, it was difficult to read, especially the last 200 pages or so. The years 1873-77 ensured that Blacks would not be able to exercise their rights for a very long time. Politics trumped everything and, as avrds points out, continued to do so well in to the 20th century.

  6. I read the Litwack book when it came out.It was my lunctime reading for a month and it certainly made one eat less.Some very disturbing things going on went on well into the 20th Century.I picked up the picture book of Lynchings a few years after that Without Sanctuary which is very graphic but something that really brings home the horror.

  7. The first chapter is very hard to read. It is appalling to read these accounts from the early 20th century, and that the Federal government did so little to alleviate the situation. At the very least, voting rights should have been protected. This alone would have forced Southern whites to deal with blacks with more respect, if for no other reason than to solicit their votes.