The Strange Career of Jim Crow
© 1955, 1965 C. Van Woodward
Fifty years ago, racial and civil unrest swept the United States as organized resistance to the morally outrageous and legally dodgy practice of segregation strengthened throughout the country. Ten years before the Civil Rights movement hit its apogee, C. Van Woodward penned a history of segregation as public policy that offered grounds for hope. Far from being a natural and deeply rooted product of the South, Jim Crow laws were a relatively new creation. Dating in the South only to the late 19th century, Jim Crow’s claims to southern stock were shallow indeed, and could theoretically be destroyed as quickly as it had been instilled.
Laws prescribing racial separation were not native to the South, Woodward writes, and would have been utterly untenable in the plantation atmosphere where blacks and whites alike ‘worked’ together. Blacks and whites were accustomed to one another, familiar even. In the north, however, blacks remained a strange ‘other’ that whites sought distance from, and so codes prevented too much social mingling between the two races. Northerners visiting the South immediately after the war were astonished by the lack of racial uproar. It took decades for the dust to settle after the war, for a new universal race-relations norm to be established throughout the region; unfortunately for blacks, and for the country, such norms were set in an atmosphere toxic to harmony.
The latter half of the 19th century was one of constant, dramatic change; the pace of the industrial revolution quickened, throwing all the developed world into an uproar. Millions streamed from the farms into the cities, national economies reeled in prosperity and fraud; an entire economic system was being rebuilt in the United States as power shifted fully from the farms to the factories, from plantation lords to captains of industry and coal-barons. Black Americans would feature in this chaos, as they were seized on as a pliable voting bloc. The alliances that courted them were both strange and hopeful. Not only did the old plantation caste solicit the support of their former slaves against their mutual antagonists, the burgeoning commercial and industrial class that had its own means of exploitation, but the Populists sought to unite poor blacks and whites alike against their foes, both the plantation elite and the railroad titans. But blacks, like any Americans, could not be counted on to vote universally alike, en bloc – and if they could not be conveniently used , the reconstructionists had little interest in bothering with them. When the old aristocracy returned to the ballot boxes and overturned many of the laws and institutions that maintained civil rights, nothing was said. At the same time, the United States had become a global empire, seizing Cuba and the Philippines from Spanish hands; its civil and military leaders were cast into the positions of being the white masters of colonial inferiors. Just as the power of the slaveholder poisoned him against his fellow man, so to did colonial power poison the soul of America in general, penetrating not just in the extremities of empire, but shaping racial attitudes in the heartland. As the United States’ leadership grew accustomed to seeing itself as a superior white few managing with benefaction the affairs of a colored multitude, and having to endure the multitude’s constant ungrateful troublemaking, racial relations in the United States took a dive. Race codes multiplied and strengthened within a generation’s time.
That it happened so quickly gives Woodward hope; surely peace and justice could be restored as quickly as the northerners had adopted the plantation mindset; surely southern society could dismantle its codes as quickly as it had put them up. Segregation could be a momentary madness, a fever like Prohibition; hate need not be the last word. Indeed, in the reprint of Strange Career produced in the 1960s, Woodward is able to track the history of the Civil Rights movement. Over a half-century old at this point, Strange Career remains of interest to American historians interested race relations, but especially southerners curious about reconstruction; both will find this look at politics and culture quite insightful.